Sunday, December 30, 2012

Growing Old in Poetry

Above is the cover of a book forthcoming from Autumn House Press in e-book format; it should be available next month (April). Growing Old in Poetry: Two Poets, Two Lives is a series of dialogues in essay form between me and my friend, the wonderful former poet laureate of Delaware Fleda Brown. (My last post shows a chapter from the collection.) Fleda and I are about the same age, are parents and grandparents, and, as she says in her introduction, "grumpy about some of the same things." Our dialogues explore our pasts and presents and their relations to our practice of poetry. It has been a joy for me to collude with so smart and gifted a person!

Cover design: Kathy Boykowycz
Cover art: "Stratified Clouds," pastel, by Nancy Clark

Thursday, December 27, 2012

On Music

For a couple of years, my dear friend Fleda Brown, former Delaware poet laureate, has collaborated with me in producing a series of essays, which will appear collectively as an e-book from Autumn House in April. The volume is called GROWING OLD IN POETRY: TWO POETS, TWO LIVES, and it presents our alternating meditations on a variety of subjects, ones that appear –among many others, no doubt– somehow to have led us to poetry... and kept us there. I am praying for all I'm worth that Fleda, who will soon undergo chemotherapy for Stage 3C cancer, may go on shedding her wonderful light on the world for years to come.

The following is an excerpt from the collection in question, my own reverie on how music has affected my life and my writing. Fleda considers rock n roll in her portion; I look at jazz in mine. Some of our other topics include sports, sex, food, houses, books, wild animals, and children. I hope this entry may pique your interest in the book itself, if only so that you may savor her fabulous blend of wit, wisdom, humor and lyricism.

I Recognize Thy Glory...

 Those who know me know also that I’ve long been deeply in love with what the late Roland Kirk called “Black Classical Music,” especially of that era whose great practitioners include Monk, Rollins, Davis, Jackson, Roach, among others. So I’m frequently and unsurprisingly asked about the influence of jazz on my poetry.  Whenever the question is posed, I try to avoid any glib answer; but I’m never entirely able.  The interplay between the music I cherish and the poems I write is likely beyond words.  Indeed, it may be one of the principal things that I have, however furtively, long been trying to find words for as a poet.

That said, one of the surer things I can surmise is that as more or less a formalist, I like feeling the chafe of language against the limits of received (or invented) structure.  There is no moral nor even aesthetic stance here:  I dislike the formalist/free verse debate, because it too often sounds like a pair of Alpha males elevating what they do, which is often all they can do, into virtue, which involves debasing what they don’t and can’t do into vices.  As a rule, the accompanying arguments are downright ill-considered:  the free versers, for instance, associate formalism with elitism and political reaction... which makes one wonder where the great practitioners of Delta blues and its musical derivatives would stand.  Equally vapid arguments free verse suggests sloppy poetics and fuzzy thinking, sayare too often trotted out on the other side, as if, say, Adrienne Rich were some scatterbrain.

As for me, I like good poetry, be it formalist or vers libre.   (Full disclosure: I’m a lot more at ease with free verse than I am with so-called free jazz, but that need not concern us here.)  I do what I do not because I regard it as self-evidently superior but because it’s what I do, if you’ll allow me some circular reasoning.  Who knows?  My predispositions may be genetic or characterological.  I’m no judge of these possibilities.

Robert Frost cannily reminds us that we speak of musical strains, and for me to riff and fill within a form, however self-generated, however unobvious ... well, that is a pleasure to me, imaginably the grandest pleasure I take from writing. It is a far more significant pleasure, certainly, than any effort at “meaning.”  I send what I compose into the world without ultimately knowing as much as a reader may discover about “what I am trying to say” (one of my students’ favorite locutions). 

I think, though, that I do know the how of the saying, and this is where musical influence most likely flows in. 

I suspect, in fact, that I’m a poet because I'm a failed improvisatory musician.  I haven't played for decades, but back when I did, I was just adept enough to know how masterful the real masters are:  how they must have lightning reflexes together with long-honed skills; how they must have a vast awareness of prior literature, along with a yen both to honor and to challenge it; how they must cultivate an affection for form even as they marshal the wit and agility to bend form to novel purpose.

Schooled in an obsolescent, humanist way, moreover, and therefore familiar, precisely, with prior literature, I like also to “sample'” my predecessors, a gesture which Hip-Hop may dream it invented, but which has been part of jazz for as long as that mode has existed.  Though I’m certain many of my readers miss the effort, I do like to play off favorite writers:  Frost himself, Dickinson, Thomas Hardy, at least two of the Romantics, to mention some prominent ones.  This sampling  –pace Harold Bloom– represents an affection that too many of my students can't know,  because they do not and are not expected to know poetry from any farther back than the Moderns. They may be able to “deconstruct” a Madonna video, say; they may be hip to the musings of Slavol Zizek; but what we used to call the poetic canon is pretty much out of bounds for them.  Yet I say this not so much censoriously as compassionately, for they do in fact deprive themselves of a joy.

There’s a record (I still sometimes listen to records) featuring Cannonball Adderley and Milt Jackson called Things Are Getting Better.   If you get the chance, listen to those masters play and play around with– that old chestnut, “The Sidewalks of New York,” of which there are two quite disparate takes on the album.  That tune’s melody and rinky-dink waltz format are no more sophisticated than those of the jump rope song it oddly resembles, at least to my ear, no more elevated than those we encounter in the most perdurable of American forms, the blues itself.

Which makes me free-associate and meditate a bit on one of the literary idols to whom I just referred.  In his fragmentary The Recluse, William Wordsworth wrote as follows:

                            ........Paradise, and groves 

            Elysian, Fortunate Fields -- like those of old

                Sought in the Atlantic Main -- why should they be 

            A history only of departed things, 

            Or a mere fiction of what never was?


The poet revolutionarily suggested that the old values of epic need not be sought in an epical domain, no longer available in any case; rather, he continued,

             ....the discerning intellect of Man,

            When wedded to this goodly universe

              In love and holy passion, shall find these

            A simple produce of the common day.

As I have said, it would be hard to imagine a more commonplace composition than “The Sidewalks of New York.”  And yet notice how Adderley and Jackson, by dint of brain and heart (intellect and holy passion), move within its frankly banal chord structure without ever losing touch with that structure and its guiding melody.  Their improvisations are a wonder and a delight in and of themselves, but the epical dimension, to borrow Wordsworth’s term somewhat inexactly, consists in what we could more exactly label flights of the imagination. 

Not so long ago in western history, to return to the issue of music and its influence, cultured intellects assumed that dimension accessible only by way of more formally composed music.  For the most part, such an assumption preceded the arrival of the Black Classical approach.  There are even now, needless to say, those who find such an entrée the only legitimate one. (I suspect, for example, that my brilliant high school music teacher, the late Al Conkey, may be doing snap rolls in his grave to hear me talk as I do in this reverie.) I don’t want to fight with these partisans, that scarcely being the purpose of my attentions here.  I began anyhow by expressing my distaste for banal dialectic, and I don’t in any event come to these thoughts as champion of jazz over other kinds of composition– except in my own praxis. 

The feel of improvisation (rare though scarcely unheard of in highbrow music) is what juices up my forms.  Or so I hope.  That approach may not work for other poets.  But whoever they are, the imaginative flight is what we are all after; these are simply the materials and attitudes that help me get airborne to the small extent I sometimes do.

Yes, as Wallace Stevens, another idol, iterated and repeatedly demonstrated, Imagination is what the poem is all about.  The way the great Black Classical composers and musicians manage such a matter is something that has always seemed to me worth trying, and even failing, to emulate in print.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Hard as it is for me to imagine myself a "treasure," I am greatly pleased by the following Booklist review of my forthcoming (January) book of personal essays, A North Country Life: Tales of Woodsmen, Waters and Wildlife:

Lea, Vermont’s poet laureate, has crafted a series of essays on the people and places of his rural northern environment that will appeal deeply to those who love or admire New England and can appreciate the quiet life so often exemplified in Yankee magazine. Using the seasons of the year as a framework and including a series of short one page “daybook” entries, this is primarily a collection of reminiscences about friends and mentors and good times gone by. Lea is a waterman and hunter, deeply in tune with his surroundings and clearly indebted to the people he writes about. The author’s literary expertise shines through in a passage where bass fishing reminds him of an Elizabeth Bishop poem but as much as his essays are about quail and dogs and logging, Lea reaches beyond regionality to a purely American experience. There is a soulful quality to his words and a strong conviction that a connected life is one to be admired and emulated. A cross between Thoreau and David James Duncan, Lea is a northern treasure.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Saying Goodbye to Ralph

The other night, my wife and I went to the funeral service of our friend and neighbor Ralph Gilson. A handyman-plus for the past decade at a local produce farm, Ralph was one of the most upbeat people anyone could know. He simply insisted on laughter, no matter the hand life dealt him, and it dealt him a few truly tough ones.

The pastor began the ceremony by pointing to a giant photograph of the deceased. He noted that “that smile will tell you more than anything my words can ever say.” It’s true that Ralph’s smile was ceaseless and wide and more than merely warm. The clergyman added, “Pay close attention this evening, and you may leave here a better person than when you came in.” He rightly explained that Ralph had been one of the very few of whom it could legitimately be said, “'You were always glad to see him.'”

There were moving testimonies from his family. His son Dan, who lives in Alaska, spoke to all his father’s experiences and achievements: he served three separate hitches in the military, for instance. But he kept coming back to one simple sentence: “He was my dad.

Ralph’s friend Kenny, a hard-boiled Yankee who normally sheds about as many tears per year, I suspect, as Captain Ahab, was reduced to sobbing. “We were church trustees together. Now I can’t call him up for help...” Kenny couldn’t go on, and there were multiple others who couldn’t sustain speech for the emotion they felt.

Ralph’s widow, the wonderful, warm and tough-as-nails Marlene, told the crowd that she and Ralph had recently celebrated their fiftieth anniversary. She recalled that her own father once told Ralph, “If you don’t marry my daughter, I bet you’ll spend the next 25 years in jail.” Marlene recalled that on their 25th anniversary, Ralph crowed, “If I’d only listened to your dad, I’d be a free man tomorrow!”

That was Ralph all over.

It seemed extraordinary. so many faces contorted by simultaneous crying and laughing.

I don’t know if I came away a better person, but I came away with two significant responses. First, I noted that somehow that deep-gut, ultra-basic commentary of Kenny and Dan and others– no, to say it more accurately, their reduction to inarticulateness in spite of themselves: that was the most affecting part of the evening, as the most polished, precise and eloquent remarks could never have been.

We wordsmiths need to think about what that may mean.

Second, looking around, I found myself pondering my more cosmopolitan friends’ frequent assertion (on the basis, usually. of scant or no experience) that “nothing ever happens” in rural, postage stamp-sized towns like my own. They make that charge despite the fact, of course, that the most important things –birth, death, love, hate, courage, cowardice–  are evident no matter where. In any case, having surveyed that crowd of farmers, mechanics, cops, cooks, lawyers, business people, and even, in my person, one hyper-educated Ph.D., I believed I’d beheld something crucial, which tends not to happen where those self-styled sophisticates tend to live. How many Americans nowadays can be witnesses at a top-to-bottom community ritual?

I need to think, too, about what that signifies to a poet, though I hope my work shows I’ve been thinking about it for many decades now.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Poetry and criticism

I have been commenting for several regional newspapers on poetry, or life, or ideally the relation between the two for a full year. I would like to share some of my thoughts with a wider audience than that of my northern New England region. This is my most recent effort; others will follow monthly, and other, likely briefer thoughts will be posted in betweenSL

A number of people have asked if I’ll ever present the thoughts I’ve offered during these preceding twelve months in book form. That seems unlikely. I doubt any publisher would sponsor a volume consisting of one- and two-page essays. I am nonetheless honored by these expressions of interest –and a bit surprised: as a late-comer to poetry as a mode of inquiry, which seems a reasonable way to describe it, I still find it remarkable that readers should be at all concerned with my opinions about it.

Still, I will self-advertise to the extent of saying that a book of literary criticism by my hand, A Hundred Himalayas: Essays on Life and Literature, has lately been published by the University of Michigan Press. Its essays are more expansive than these have been, and they cover a span not of one but of almost forty years.

In those four decades, I’ve been both teacher and poet, each function a blessing to me, and furthermore, I hope, honorable pursuits. In selecting essays for the book, however, I confess I had a qualm or two. That, I concluded, accounted for my having so long deferred their presentation between covers.

Why the qualms? I’ve already hinted at one reason: my depressive’s sense that no one would be much interested in my opinions and speculations. But that was less compelling a reason than another, namely the ambivalence I feel even about old-fashioned practical criticism, whether my own or others’. Not that I don’t enjoy it  –I do, a lot– but that I sense the critic’s grasp must always fall short. Or rather, it often becomes so inventive that it’s less a response to any given text than it is its own hybrid art form. The critic’s response, that is, turns primarily into something on his or her mind, which is likely altogether different from what the author had on his or her mind.

But what does any author have in mind?

A common question I’ve heard over the years, from aspirant commentator, person-in-the-street, and academic specialist alike, is “What is the poet trying to say? It’s as if she or he had some terrible throat disease. There’s a way in which a good poem is itself what it is trying to say, in which the poem is its own “meaning.”

And yet, when all is said and done, that meaning does in some respects remain obscure. When the obscurity is part of its design I grow impatient with it, but even if the poem seeks precision and lucidity, if it has anything going for it, it is surely at least other than one-dimensional. No translation of its “ideas” will account for its power.

Truth is, I believe that an ambitious poem will possess its own hidden allegory, an allegory hidden not only from the critic but also from the author. Oh, that author may tell you what gave rise to this or that piece of writing, and he or she may do so in entirely good faith. But I insist that his or her prose explication of the poem’s origins must always be far less than complete. In my own case, for example, I may claim that a recent and as yet unpublished poem was tripped off by my observing a particularly outsized oak leaf, and the claim is at once “true and scandalously insufficient. The poem does somehow illuminate aspects of my own spirit that I didn’t know were there, but it is powerless to render them in full. Yes, I noticed that oak leaf. But what in me turned it into such a big deal (at least in my own heart)? I confess I don’t know. Why, say, should that leaf have arrested my attention more than further recent news of drought’s effects on a part of Kansas that I have come to love? Why more than my oldest grand child’s recent fifth birthday? I don’t know, and I don’t know.

Let me illustrate where I’m going by reference to another example from my work, which it took me a long time to comprehend even in part. In the early eighties, my younger brother died suddenly of an aneurysm. He was barely into his thirties, so needless to say, this catastrophe was just that, coming, so it seemed, out of nowhere. One unsurprising effect on me was a rather protracted abandonment of poetry. What, I wondered, was the point of “art” in face of something against which it would forever be ineffective?

Six months passed. I was out hiking with my dogs. One of them came upon some piece of rotten nastiness on the woods-floor and, doglike, began to roll in it. This put me in mind of a situation which by then was well behind me. Five years before, a certain local clan had gutted a deer right across from where my family lived, leaving the guts there to putrefy. I was and am a hunter, so it was not the kill that bothered me; it was that they would leave that mess for my dogs to gobble up and, to put it genteelly, to redeposit inside our house.

The clan in question was a hard-luck, hard-living kind. One of the sons would shortly die in a hideous car crash; another had beaten a neighbor to death during a drunken party, and had only lately been sprung from behind bars. In a word, these were not men to whom, if you had any sense, you whined. I let the whole matter pass, having scooped up the deer’s paunch and hauled it deep into the woods several miles away. In that moment, however, I imagined what might have happened if I had complained, imagined how an escalating controversy between their family and my own would have turned out.

When I got home, I sat at my desk, the itch to write having seemed to return. I then wrote a poem called “The Feud,” in which I played out that fantasy of violent vengeance. When I typed the last word, I sat back, my body literally shaking.  The poem had ended up at fifteen typescript pages– which I wrote in an hour, and, uncharacteristically, revised almost not at all before publication. Once I found the almost laughably simple narrative scheme –they do something, I retaliate; I do something, they retaliate– the poem appeared to write itself.

Being a good Puritan, of course, I was certain that anything that came so quickly could not be any good. As the cliché has it, I hadn’t “earned” it. And yet various confidants pronounced “The Feud” one of the best things I’d accomplished.

Now here was the sort of hidden allegory I’ve referred to, though it took me about eight more years to see it, though I’m sure I still see it incompletely.

The relationship between the I of the poem and its hardscrabble antagonists was very much like my actual relationship to my late brother. We were the closest of five siblings in age, and were the closest otherwise too. And the most adversarial. I was something of a scholar and an athlete, which caused him to construe both those endowments as bogus and even odious. As I understood upon his tragic death, my smug sense of myself as his superior was much akin to the self-styled decent-honest-God-fearing narrator’s sense of himself vis-à-vis the unfortunate neighbors with whom he feuded. At the resolution of the poem, he has an epiphany: namely that all the virtues he has ascribed to himself are in fact paltry as measured against the grand moral stakes of his community, never mind of the universe.

The poem came so quickly, I now believe, because without even knowing it, I had for six months, so to speak, been doing research for it; indeed, I had been doing that research all through the course of the life I’d shared with my poor brother.

How would a pile of guts have led to such an insight? I still don’t know. And even as I present this plausible account of what my own hidden allegory was, I am conscious that even after thirty years I have at best decoded a mere fraction of it. So don’t tax yourself if you feel that you often don’t “get” this or that poem. You have a lot of company.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Who Am I?

I've been described as “a man in the woods with his head full of books, and a man in books with his head full of woods.” My affection for story, moreover, an affection derived in no small measure from men and women elders in New England, colors my poetry, just as a relish for the musical properties of the word colors my prose. A lifelong passion for the natural world tends to inform almost my every utterance, as does an affection and reverence for the men and women of a disappearing north-country culture, into which I settled over four decades ago, and which I hope as I can to sustain.