Wednesday, December 31, 2014

taking care




There were, at the max, sixteen people at our Vermont house over Christmas, five of them under 7, the youngest 6 months. Though it is -2 degrees as I write this, we have no snow even now to speak of : rather, the freakish thaw that preceded Christmas day had made for some treacherous icy spots in our neighborhood, and for whatever reason, I began to reflect on the various falls on ice I have experienced –some epic, one leg-breaking–  and how careful I am at 72 (which I turned on 12/22) to avoid such accidents. I surmised that one compensation for advancing years is that I may have learned to be more careful with the rest of life too. An infant granddaughter in my arms enforced such a notion:





      
 Care

forgive me   I’m surely wrong
to think that no one’s ever seen
the likes of my oldest daughter’s daughter
only six months old
she should in fact be younger
having arrived a month too soon
though it couldn’t be too soon for me  
I hold her   healthy   on Christmas morning
our climate gone all wrong

no snow on the mountain
but for clumps here and there under trees
the green of open hay fields looking
like April    our middle daughter
is home and planning an autumn wedding
when she was this child’s age one day
I took a hike   that baby at last
in her crib    her mother drained   asleep
on Stonehouse Mountain

at height–of–land
I trod onto snow   all blank
but for a moose trail   underneath
lay ice from the past week’s freezing rain 
and down I fell but got up    unscathed
too soon our children grew and went   and
once the last of them did we walked one noon
my wife and I    along a backwoods tote road
likewise a blank stretch of land

once more I’d forgotten
to take care with my footing and tumbled
and again stood up    oh there was pain
but I escaped with a bruise
lucky not to be lame
or not so that lameness would last    for certain
my hip’s discoloration faded more slowly
than it had those years before
I’d almost forgotten

till now this wooden teething ring
shaped like a moose
which    as she babbles and squirms
the small girl gnaws   antlers to tail
my hold on her remains both gentle and firm
I know some fatherly things
or at least I hope so   I mustn’t let her fall
I take a lot of care these days 
now the kitchen windows suddenly ring


with sleet   oh which of us foresaw
this grim change in weather
it’s good in my later age to be careful
it took the melting of youth
to show me   old or youthful  
no matter   you should value care above all
though of course you may be forgiven
for not knowing that in that far-back season
when being other than young 

was something you never foresaw


Saturday, December 27, 2014

Rhyme, Poetasting, and Light Verse



I have by now visited just shy of 100 Vermont community libraries to talk about my chosen art, this in accord with the aim I announced on being installed in 2011 as the state’s poet laureate. If, in that span, there is one issue I have encountered more than any, it is the matter of rhyme in poetry. A grumpy gent in Arlington, for example, announced to me that so far as he was concerned, “if it doesn’t rhyme it isn’t a poem.”

I acknowledged that rhymed poetry was indeed less common today than once. But I pointed out– gently, I hope– that rhyme is not a requisite in poetry, nor was it during much of the art’s past. The Homeric classics do not rhyme, for instance, nor do the great Psalms of David, nor do the great blank-verse passages in Shakespeare. In his preface to Paradise Lost, John Milton goes so far as to call rhyme “the invention of a barbarous age.” (He is referring to what we used to call the Dark Ages, the period in which, via Roman Catholic chant, rhyme first became an arrow in our bards’ quivers).

Rhyme is a tricky challenge. One must use it not merely to keep a particular scheme going, though that scheme, once chosen, must be consistently honored; but also to move the poem along dramatically, even as its language strikes the reader as feasible and apt. One must resist the temptation to facile rhyming, because when rhyme exists for its sake alone, the fact seems pretty obvious as a rule, and quite lame. I am a longstanding lover of vernacular musical idioms, but must admit that we encounter a surrender to that temptation with considerable frequency in pop, rock, and blues (although –harrumph– rarely if at all did Billy Strayhorn, Johnny Mercer, Ira Gershwin, Willie Dixon, or Cole Porter succumb to it).

I am not the anti-fan of the Beatles that I was back in their early, bubble-gum, sock-hop days of “I Wanna Hold Your Hand,” etc., but I confess I’m still no great enthusiast: Lennon and McCartney can, yes, now and then come up with a pretty or a catchy melody, but consider, in one such tune, “I don’t want to leave her now”– so far, so all right– “You know I believe, and how...” And how? Well.... Dante it ain’t.

Of course, the Fab Four never sin in the manner of the late Jim Morrison, alleged “rock poet”(please!) buried in Pere Lachaise cemetery, of all places (yipes!):

“Like a dog without a bone,/ An actor out on loan,/ ”... “There’s a killer on the road/ His brain is squirmin’ like a toad/ Take a long holiday/ Let your children play....” How does one begin to critique such a mess? What on earth is an actor out on loan, and what has he to do with a boneless dog, a squirming toad, and on and on? I could proceed to impugn the poetic genius, as some oddly consider it, of Bob Dylan. I have too many friends, however, who are his devotees, and I don’t want to start a fuss with them.

Of course, I am a language nerd. But I think poets need to be language nerds. Though many seem to assume that poetry consists of vague and billowy language, I agree with W.H. Auden that its truer aim is to use language that is in fact as precise as possible. That’s a hard thing to do when addressing such common poetic themes as death, loneliness, joy, anger, love, memory, and so on. Throw the demand for chiming end-words into the mix and the challenge may grow even more acute.

We nerds wince to hear “his influence can’t be understated” when the speaker actually means “overstated.” (Has anyone else noticed the current prevalence of this inversion,  lately used even by the super-bright Cokie Roberts?) Please don’t tell us that someone addressed a letter to “my wife and I.” (I recently heard that on a BBC broadcast, of all places!) When someone says “anymore” for “nowadays,” I mentally red-pencil him or her. Mock me for all that if you like. “It is what it is,” to cite a buzz phrase traceable to the odious prevaricator Donald Rumsfeld.

Yes, these are the sorts of concerns that attract my thoughts. (Go ahead, tell me to get a life.) And the other day, as I considered the matter of rhyme, it occurred to me that those most taxed with inventive rhyme are the authors of so-called light verse. In what I have always considered a shorthand response to Rainer Maria Rilke’s fabulous poem of the same title, for instance, the late, great Ogden Nash composed this one:

The Panther

When called by a panther,
Don’t anther.

That is scarcely among Nash’s greatest poems– and they are indeed great. In the interest of space, I merely use it as my own shorthand.

We do not, however, at least to my knowledge, have any eminent light verse poets in our day. Oh, Billy Collins can be funny, all right; so can others as diverse as Stephen Dunn, Marilyn Hacker, and Charles Fort. But comedy is rarely their sole aim. I find this something of a pity, though I haven’t the resources to do anything about it myself. I’m told I’m a fairly amusing guy in person, but for some reason almost my every effort to be funny in poetry goes awry.

Here’s the strange thing: in order to get their greatest comic effects, light verse poets actually use rhyme that does exactly what I’ve argued against in other sorts of poetry. The wackier, more improbable, and conspicuous the rhyme, often enough, the better.

All of which got me to remembering George Starbuck, who died in 1995, and who was sometimes referred to as the thinking man’s Ogden Nash. Though he participated in Robert Lowell’s famous Boston University workshop with fellow students Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton, the latters’ confessional poems have survived better than Starbuck’s technically and intellectually masterful inventions. Even in his lifetime, though his first book was selected over Plath’s for the Yale Younger Poets series, he had more a cult reputation than a general one. He did not help his own case after Oscar Williams anthologized his “A Tapestry for Bayeux” in the highly influential Little Treasury series, only to drop it when someone told him that the initial letters of the first 78 lines spelled out “Oscar Williams fills a need, but a Monkey Ward catalog is softer and gives you something to read.”

I got to know George a bit, because I had been one of three judges to award his “The Argot Merchant Disaster” a lucrative Lenore Marshall Award. I found him a remarkable human being as well as an astonishing writer. For two decades, he valiantly and without any self-pity battled the Parkinson’s disease that would kill him at a young 65. Another intriguing detail from his life is described by Eric McHenry in a 2004 article appearing for Slate:

“No poet was more scrupulously attentive to words and to the ways in which even the subtlest manipulation of words can bring about seismic shifts in meaning. Starbuck, who was born in 1931, is actually the reason loyalty oaths are illegal in the United States. When the State University of New York-Buffalo fired him in 1963 for refusing to sign one, he fought the university all the way to the Supreme Court and prevailed.”

I could make a claim for Starbuck as among the dozen most technically gifted writers in the history of Anglophone literature, but I’ll let him speak for himself. Those of us with backgrounds in old-style English teaching will identify with the author here...because we are all, as I say, language nerds, sensitive to proper or brilliant or improper or outrageous spellings, word combinations, and usages.

THE SPELL AGAINST SPELLING

(a poem to be inscribed in dark places and never to be spoken aloud)

My favorite student lately is the one who wrote about feeling clumbsy.
I mean if he wanted to say how it feels to be all thumbs he
Certainly picked the write language to right in in the first place.
I mean better to clutter a word up like the old Hearst place
Than to just walk off the job and not give a dam.

Another student gave me a diagragm.
"The Diagragm of the Plot in Henry the VIIIth."

Those, though, were instances of the sublime.
The wonder is in the wonders they can come up with every time.

Why do they all say heighth, but never weighth?
If chrystal can look like English to them, how come chryptic can't?
I guess cwm, chthonic, qanat, or quattrocento
Always gets looked up. But never momento.
Momento they know. Like wierd. Like differant.
It is a part of their deep deep-structure vocabulary:
Their stone axe, their dark bent-offering to the gods:
Their protoCro-Magnon pre-pre-sapient survival-against-cultural-odds.

You won't get me deputized in some Spelling Constabulary.
I'd sooner abandon the bag-toke-whiff system and go decimal.
I'm on their side. I better be, after my brush with "infinitessimal."

There it was, right where I put it, in my brand-new book.

And my friend Peter Davison read it, and he gave me this look,
And he held the look for a little while and said, "George..."

I needed my students at that moment. I, their Scourge.
I needed them. Needed their sympathy. Needed their care.
"Their their," I needed to hear them say, "their their."

You see, there are Spellers in this world, I mean mean ones too.
They shadow us around like a posse of Joe Btfsplks
Waiting for us to sit down at our study-desks and go shrdlu
So they can pop in at the windows saying "tsk tsk."

I know they're there. I know where the beggars are,
With their flash cards looking like prescriptions for the catarrh
And their mnemnmonics, blast 'em. They go too farrh.
I do not stoop to impugn, indict, or condemn;
But I know how to get back at the likes of thegm.

For a long time, I keep mumb.
I let 'em wait, while a preternatural calmn
Rises to me from the depths of my upwardly opened palmb.
Then I raise my eyes like some wizened-and-wisened gnolmbn,
Stranger to scissors, stranger to razor and coslmbn,
And I fix those birds with my gaze till my gaze strikes hoslgmbn,
And I say one word, and the word that I say is "Oslgmbnh."

"Om?" they inquire. "No, not exactly. Oslgmbnh.
Watch me carefully while I pronounce it because you've only got two more guesses
And you only get one more hint: there's an odd number of esses,
And you only get ten more seconds no nine more seconds no eight
And a wrong answer bumps you out of the losers' bracket
And disqualifies you for the National Spellathon Contestant jacket
And that's all the time extension you're going to gebt
So go pick up your consolation prizes from the usherebt
And don't be surprised if it's the bowdlerized regularized paperback abridgment of Pepys
Because around here, gentlemen, we play for kepys."

Then I drive off in my chauffeured Cadillac Fleetwood Brougham
Like something out of the last days of Fellini's Rougham
And leave them smiting their brows and exclaiming to each other "Ougham!
O-U-G-H-A-M Ougham!" and tearing their hair.

Intricate are the compoundments of despair.

Well, brevity must be the soul of something-or-other.

Not, certainly, of spelling, in the good old mother
Tongue of Shakespeare, Raleigh, Marvell, and Vaughan.
But something. One finds out as one goes aughan.


Friday, December 26, 2014

Another "new" poem

I was attempting the task of cleaning up the Augean stables– I mean, my office, when I came across a version of this poem, composed, I believe, over thirty years ago. It was pretty awful, but some possibility seemed cached within. For all I know, it's still awful...but is is, at any rate, changed.




     1981: Solace, Stone

I had recently known great sorrow:
my young brother was gone. So I set out alone.
Deep in Breaux’s Gore– where I’d never been
until that morning– a headstone leaned.

It was quiet. Never such quiet. 
Who can recall that marker but me?
Who is there even to know about it?
Doubtless someone. Hunters must see

the canted slab now and then,
there since 1841.
It only bore one name: John Goodridge,
wife- and childless. Water and sun

had worn its shoulders round.
Home late afternoon, near evening,
I moved from woodpile to shed and back,
less as if working than dreaming.

Scents rose in autumn dusk
then settled, odors of duff and rain.
I settled too– in the wheelbarrow’s bed,
like a chunk of oak or rather stone

that might passively ride along.
Forty years since, that I bore witness
to the marker. Even birds had gone mute.
I’d never known so complete a silence.

I wouldn’t forget it. Never.
I would never not hear that stillness again.
Our little family was set for winter.
We’d soon be soothed by the iron stove’s hum.

I turned from our surfeit of firewood,
And felt at once that a gentle something–
from above the trees, from far over our woodshed
and down through all leaf, all dust– was falling

into my bone and flesh.
I thought back on the morning, so laden with silence,
as if I could move beyond joy or sadness,
stone-quiet myself, and that meant solace.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

"Muddling through," E.M. Forster called it– a good thing


               
I turned 72 yesterday. That struck me as pretty old, though I am blessed with good health and more than reasonable physical vigor. Understandably, I have been meditating on what I have learned and have not in seven decades, and for whatever reason, the fact that I feel I know less now than I ever did feels right and oddly comforting. This poem had been a-borning a while, and that feeling helped push it through a complete draft.  




                    I Impugn a Victorian                       

                                                                                   

 There are a thousand thoughts lying within a man that he does not know till he 
takes up a pen to write.                                                                                                                              –William Makepeace Thackeray (1811-1863)         
                                                                                                                                    



Or within a woman.  Or maybe

Old Thackeray was delusionary, yearning

To believe that, simply by being a writer, he could write

And thoughts just show up. It’s been far too long since I read

About his Becky Sharp and others for me to judge if in fact they do

Arrrive in his Vanity Fair or elsewhere in this eminent Victorian’s work.



Maybe he’s only vain. But I also yearn to believe.

I read that quotation somewhere and I jotted it down 

Because its words must have spoken to something inside me.

That is, now that I take up the pen’s contemporary replacement–

Now that I write, their gist will reveal itself as, well, perhaps not thought

Precisely, but as subject or theme that will ring somewhat true. At least I hope so.



Or, on a better day, if you’ll forgive my presumption, 

It may even instruct. How long, however, dear William,

Must I keep composing these lines without any deliberation

Before the thoughts you speak of supervene? I’ll settle for one.

It’s exacting to keep all this up, dimly expecting some higher level
Of mental engagement as, meanwhile, the feeder by our window teems



With the same old, but delightful, birds of winter:

Redpoll, pine siskin, minuscule brown creeper, nuthatch,

The usual horde of chickadees, a tufted titmouse, hairy and downy

Woodpeckers, and now and again, to the alerter birds’ consternation,

And mine –though I confess its beauty also thrills me– a sharp-shinned hawk.

Fixed on murder, he skulks in the high bare limbs of that paper birch until it stoops



Upon some pygmy victim, or, more curiously,

Merely perches there, declining to dive and wreak

Its hell and havoc. Your comments have made no peace in my mind,

Mr. Makepeace. I took you at your word and here I am, less far in fact along

Thought’s avenue than I was at the beginning.  I’ve been pressing and prosing ahead

For five desultory stanzas now, and I must conclude, since I must move toward conclusion,



That like so much of life as I have known it,

All but the tiniest portion of this time has consisted of waiting

Without a clue. Not of course that there aren’t a lot of much worse

Concerns to fret about than my bemusement. I haven’t yet gone down

To the village store to fetch the newspaper, doubtless full of instances of such

Worse things. But meanwhile: Look at all these birds– so vivid, brilliant, scribbling



Their eloquent little marks there on the snow,

Even the ones without a clue they’re close to death.



                                                                                                            for Bob Demott

Sunday, December 14, 2014

stick season

I'm a little out of sync here: the poem below should by rights have appeared in November, but its "inspiration" (I'm always a bit uncomfortable with that term) was a Vermont Public Radio commentary by one of my former students, longtime friend Peter Gilbert, director of the Vermont Humanities Council. Peter is a learned fellow and a poetry enthusiast. I suspect, and I blush, that he knows more about poetry than I do.

I was out of state when Peter's commentary on "Stick Season" aired, but having returned home, I found it on the VPR web site and responded with something whose title shamelessly replicates the one he used for his remarks.

I found my attitude toward the season in question to echo Peter's all but exactly. Upper New England is famous for its autumn foliage, but like him, I have also always loved, even perhaps preferred, the period between the end of the color's peak and the coming of first snow. There is a clarity and austerity in the landscape at that point that I find, at least on sunny days, equally beautiful to the hysterics of October.

The prospect of winter, perhaps like that of the gallows, as Dr. Samuel Johnson famously put it, "concentrates the mind wonderfully."

But then I love winter too. Why on earth would anyone who, like me, chooses to live in northern Vermont, and who (exactly unlike a snowbird) heads north to Maine for respite, even in January– why would he not love the season we're in as I write?


                     


                       Stick Season
                                                                                                       –for Peter Gilbert

The one that precedes stick season is the one that shows
in those quaint calendar photographs, the one that brings the buses
and cars and people– and devices: for a long time plain old cameras,
then video gear for a spell, now mostly so-called smart phones,
which even map out travel routes. The picture-takers
contemplate those phones as often as they do

the scene, which is sumptuous, granted– scarlet, yellow, exorbitant
on the breadloaf hills, leaves incandescent, drifting or plunging
downward, depending on weather, to scuttle along the roadbeds,
rivers, fields, and lakes, exquisite little creatures,
ones, or so it might seem, reluctant to be seen
yet wanting to be seen after all.
                                                                                          However, give me

this: middle November, the season of sticks. O give me
stubborn oak and beech leaves, umber and dun, that flitter
in gusts that smell so clean and new they break your heart.
The trees– the other, unclothed ones– are standing there, 
fixed and dignified, and you can look straight through them
to the contours of the mountains, stark, perhaps, but lovely

in their apparent constancy. That gap-toothed barn
houses only space since its owner died. Do you remember
Studebakers? That’s one over there, a pickup truck,
flat-footed among sumac. Painted green way back,
these days it has taken the hue of those later leaves I love.
Mere age has changed the mountains too. They’re rounder now

than once, worn smoother. Everything is for a time.



Monday, December 8, 2014

An odd departure, but one never knows....

I have, of course, commented on this blog all but exclusively as a poet, but now I'm going to do so as president and principal fund-raiser for an organization that has preoccupied my time and attention for over a decade, the Downeast Lakes Land Trust.

Actually, there is small conflict if any between my career as a poet and my work for this trust. The deep-woods neighborhood that DLLT has conserved, and to which it now wants to add, has been dear to my heart for 62 years. It was in 1953 that my father took me and my brothers on a two-week paddle trip among the neighborhood's many pristine lakes; ten year later my dad and mom bought a camp there. They are both gone now, and my living brother and our two sisters run it more or less as a collective.

 I have never missed a summer (and rarely a fall, and lately, few winters) in that beloved place.

I was privileged to know many men and women who lived in this still-remote country prior to the arrival of power tools for woodswork and modern conveniences (including electricity) for the home. These were some of the hardest working citizens our nation has ever produced, and their descendants still require a lot of gumption and industry to survive in the poorest county not only in Maine but also in the entire northeast.

Hard as life was for those old-timers, they were sturdy and as a rule pretty jolly. They were also fabulous raconteurs. This owed itself, I suspect, largely to the fact that they had to make their own entertainment, even radio being beyond their reach. They were, in effect, an oral culture; some of the most accomplished yarn-spinners were ones who could barely read and write– and some could do neither at all.

When I decided I wanted to be a writer, I longed to get their voices onto the page. However, I knew I lacked the genius of a Willa Cather or a Mark Twain: I knew, that is, I could not write in dialect without sounding condescending, which was about as close to opposite from the way I felt about these men and women as you could go.

I thus concocted an enabling fiction, if that's what it is: if I sought to tell stories like theirs in poetry, maybe I could catch some of the cadences of these treasured folks' speech without having to imitate it.  

My success in that regard, indeed my success as a poet in any respect– these are not matters I'm fit to judge. But I am certain that I owe those old-timers and their descendants, in effect, a whole life. So when a group of us, mostly locals, but "outsiders" like me as well, discovered that this neighborhood was slated for liquidation logging and sale to real estate developers (God, what a word!), we founded Downeast Lakes Land Trust.

I have been working on its behalf since the trust's inception in 2002. Our first effort, which ended in 2005, proceeded in partnership with the New England Forestry Foundation. It secured a 328,000-acre conservation easement, protecting one shore of West Grand Lake around the hamlet of Grand Lake Stream in Washington County, Maine, from development. The conservation easement included nearly 500 miles of lakefront. In the process, we also purchased 28,000 acres outright as a community forest, which, sustainably managed, now provides jobs in a part of the world that is more or less always in economic recession.

Since then, the acreage of the community forest has been increased by 6600 acres, which also protected the much smaller but equally beautiful Wabassus Lake from development.


We now seek to purchase an additional 22,000-acre tract to add to our forestry holdings. It has been both our privilege and our great good fortune to have Lyme Timber Company, a firm with strong conservation values, as the owner with whom we are dealing. Lyme bought it from the prior owners and worked out a deal whereby they could timber it responsibly while we raised funds.

By the end of 2012, we had raised the necessary 14 million dollars to establish another easement on that 22,000 acres. We needed five million more to buy the property outright, adding it to the community forest, and making that entire community resource nearly 60,000 acres. 

Very important to me is that the tract we mean to buy will include a 7100-acre ecological reserve, which will be left in a pristine natural condition, never cut, and so allowed in time to become old-growth woodland. The reserve includes the magnificent wetland watershed of Big Musquash Stream, including a 1000-acre domed bog, home to many threatened and even endangered species. I have paddled the world, but no trip is more extraordinary than the one through that magisterial wetland.


Both the federal government, through its Forest Legacy program, and the state of Maine, through its Land for Maine's Future program, have recognized us in the past as the number one forestry/conservation project, respectively, in the nation and the state, so we have reason to be proud.

Should we fail in purchasing the property, we will have no control over forestry practice, and local people greatly fear either the return of industrial logging, which is hard on wildlife habitat and thus on much of their livelihood, or the establishment of so-called “kingdom estates,” which might well restrict their access to land and water that generations of men and women have cherished. 


It is significant, I think, that the town of Grand Lake Stream, with fewer than 100 year-round residents, changed the amended town meeting article providing the trust with $10,000 dollars to $40,000, and approved the amended article unanimously. We are very encouraged by such strong local support.

It is a longer than long shot, but if any of you who follow me here want to donate toward the completion of this important campaign, please Google Downeast Lakes Land Trust, and you will find all the information you need.

Once again, happy holiday season to all! 

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Some recent poems

Back in May, I posted a poem by the superb Bosnian Serb poet Goran Simic. Here is a poem I wrote, in a sense, in response. I sometimes feel that my poems, given the relative serenity and ease of my life, may lack gravity; but, as "No Consequence" makes clear, it would be utterly idiotic to wish I had had the sorts of experience that Goran and others suffered during the awful recent years in Sarajevo– just so I could write more powerful material.



No Consequence

An eagle shot from nowhere and killed

One of two black ducklings

Without the least effort as I canoed

A mirror lake at dawn.

When the small bird disappeared, the hen

Rushed to shield the last of her brood,



Urgent as my own mind, which rushed

By habit to metaphor

And by dint of will alone stopped shy

Of the poetaster’s O–

For all the sad creatures.  I paddled on.

So did the two that survived.



They fossicked again for surface insects,

The mother settled her feathers,

The world went ahead with its usual business,

And I thought of my Bosnian friend,

How he opts for a sturdy manner.  He tells

Good jokes in the bastard English



He learned from American comic books

And talk behind the translation

Of television sitcom soundtracks.

He moves on.  In spite of all.

That poor doomed duckling’s wisps of down

Floated in air like snowflakes,



Diaphanous, after the raptor snatched it,

Beautiful, backlit by sun.

I recall the eagle as a totem of splendor

While it managed its own savage business,

Even as the pitiable rasps and squalls

Of the grown duck likewise linger,



Indelible, in the brain.  And so

I may just write of them soon,

Though I think how my friend beheld the brain

Of his brother splayed against

A wall in a town so picturesque

It all but beggars the mind.

 

O, I’m a poet of no consequence.

The sniper picked one of a pair

Who walked a quaint old street together.

I feel guilt not envy.  Indeed,

I’m otherwise content to be

So wanting in subject matter. 

This next effort is one of many lately that I'm coming to look upon as "geezer poems," occasioned as they are by my now being –with the arrival of Ruthie Mae last summer–  a grandfather five times over:

To a Granddaughter in My Arms



I can’t play Duck-Duck-Goose anymore,

I tell you– barely four years old,

And feather-light in my arms. I might

Try joining you in the family’s game,

But it takes me so long now to stand from sitting

I’d lose every round. Might you like that?
Victory’s still all harmless delight



For you, not an urge for arrogant triumph,

Not lust for another’s humiliation.

Why can’t you do it, Grandpa? you ask.

I shrug and say, I’m old.  Outside,

Late March: the hills still showing snow,

Though out the south window as I stand here and hold you,

I behold green hinting itself in the grass,



The dun stubble fading, and downhill, the pines

Flaring with incandescent candles:

Spring’s growth. Yes, dear, I’m just too old

For your harmless play, and you can’t see

What I see all over– the sweet and the other.

One day you will. There’s no hurry, Lord knows.

Things make their rounds. So do we all.



I wish you a happy holiday season, one and all!




Sunday, November 23, 2014

To Purify the Language of the Tribe



The French poet Stephane Mallarm√© once opined (T.S. Eliot would echo him in his magisterial Four Quartets) that poetry’s object was to “purify the language of the tribe.” I’ve been thinking about that lately– less, though, in response to any poetic text than to a wonderful prose one, Henry Beston’s Northern Farm (1949), a chronicle of seasonal life in and around the house that the author and his wife shared on Lake Damariscotta in Maine.

Anyone who has ever considered her- or himself in the least a naturalist writer knows Beston’s classic The Outermost House; by her own account, for example, this was the only book that directly influenced Rachel Carson’s composition of Silent Spring, itself so influential. Yet I was ignorant of Northern Farm until it turned up on a shelf at my late, wonderful mother-in-law’s house in western Massachusetts. Much of the author’s prose simply stuns me, and I am in sympathy with many of its tendencies. Consider the following:

One of the greater mischiefs which confront us today is the growing debasement of the language. Our speech is a mere shadow of its incomparable richness, having on the one hand become vulgarized and on the other corrupted with a particularly odious academic jargon. Now this is dangerous. A civilization which loses its power over its own language has lost its power over the instrument by which it thinks.

Amen, said I to myself as I pondered these assertions...a response that among other things surely proves, as I must acknowledge, how men and women of an age like mine have always thought and will always think “the world nowadays is going to hell.” But.

But what is meant, for example, by “Chevrolet, an American revolution”? Was it General Motors that impelled Washington across the Delaware in that cold, crucial winter? For shame. Or “Love– it’s what makes as Subaru a Subaru.” Did Dante drive an Outback?

This is the sort of thing that Beston called vulgarization. Loathsome though it be, however, it can’t compare to a passage like the following, cobbled together by a professor– Lord, help us– of English at a prestigious university:

If, for a while, the ruse of desire is calculable for the uses of discipline soon the repetition of guilt, justification, pseudo-scientific theories, superstition, spurious  authorities, and classifications can be seen as the desperate effort to “normalize” formally the disturbance of a discourse of splitting that violates the rational,  enlightened claims of its enunciatory modality.

Contemporary literary theorists such as our professor here have pointed out that words never bear more than an oblique relation to what they are meant to signify. (To arrive at this conclusion, evident to any poet or fiction writer within the first day or so of trying out her art, the intelligentsia must have invented a reader so dumb or so rapt as perhaps to have seen a written word like “hamburger” and then tried to eat it.) But it is unclear to me exactly what the obfuscatory words just cited may refer to, even obliquely.

In reading Henry Beston, in relishing his straightforward yet lyrical style, it occurred to me –hardly for the first time– that alienation from the tangible world, including the alienation of language from that world, is, as he says, dangerous. I am more and more convinced that the farther we get from our physical realities, the more radically we make the (false) distinction between our bodily and spiritual lives, the more we pay for it.

We can turn to– well, silliness, the kind evinced, in my opinion, by the unreadable prose of the English professor just quoted, though his is only an instance, and sadly not a particularly extreme one, of the argot used by the academic theorists who have carried the day in our humanities departments. These tend to be men and women who speak so densely and abstractly –and all but exclusively to one another– that their language bears no palpable relation to the world of people who live in very different circumstances. Theory among the academicians, I surmise, is so motivated by their need to say something new (an imperative that would have baffled, even alarmed, the scholars of antiquity, by the way) that I can’t help supposing they must themselves at times feel suspicion of their own assertions.

Here’s Henry Beston again:

When I am here by myself..., I read the agricultural papers and journals which have been put aside in the kitchen cupboard for just such a solitary night. I never read (these) without being struck by the good, sound, honest English of the writing, by the directness and simplicity of the narratives...Whether the topic be tomatoes or ten-penny nails, their writers know how to say things and say them well.


But wait: I am not mounting an argument for simplism any more than Beston is; I scarcely regret that Emily Dickinson, for instance, was not a poultry farmer. I am simply reiterating my claim that disembodiment, alienation from our physical and natural world, results not in higher thinking but in impoverishment or obfuscation or, again, silliness. This seems to me even truer for poetry than for most modes of discourse. I’m put in mind of Ezra Pound’s claim, which, granted, is only a half-truth, even if the true half is deeply compelling: “the natural object is always the adequate symbol.”

Speaking of which, could anyone, as poet, fictionist, or practitioner any other sort of language, be more eloquent than Beston in this passage from Northern Farm?

A gold and scarlet leaf floating solitary on the clear, black water of the morning rain             barrel can catch the emotion of a whole season, and chimney smoke blowing across             the winter moon can be a symbol of all that is mysterious in human life.