Friday, December 20, 2013

On "Cultural Studies"

Though I ought to avoid self-advertisement, here’s the title poem of my most recent poetry collection. I hope I can quickly explain my motives for quoting it.

                        I Was Thinking of Beauty

            I’ve surrendered myself to Mingus’s Tijuana Moods
            on my obsolete record machine, sitting quiet as I sat last night.
            I was thinking of beauty then, how it’s faced grief since the day
            that somebody named it. Plato; Aquinas; the grim rock tablets
            that were handed down to Moses by Yahweh, with His famous stricture
            on the graven image. Last evening, I was there when some noted professor 

            in a campus town to southward addressed what he called, precisely,
            The Issue of Beauty. Here was a person who seemed to believe
            his learned jargon might help the poor because his lecture
            would help to end the exploitations of capitalism --
            which pays his wage at the ivied college through which he leads
            the impressionable young, soon to be managers, brokers, bankers.

            He was hard above all on poems, though after a brief appearance
            poetry seemed to vanish. It was gone before I knew it.
            The professor quoted,  Beauty is Truth, Truth Beauty, then chuckled.
            He explained that such a claim led to loathsome politics.   
            I’m afraid he lost me. Outside, the incandescent snow
            of February sifted through the quad’s tall elm trees,

            hypnotic. Tonight as I sit alone and listen, the trumpet
            on Tijuana Gift Shop lurches my heart wih its syncopations.
            That’s the rare Clarence Shaw, who vanished one day, though Mingus heard
            he was teaching hypnosis somewhere. But back again to last evening: 
            I got thinking of Keats composing and coughing, of Abby Lincoln,
            of Lorrain and Petrarch, of Callas and Isaac Stern.  I was lost

            in memory and delight, terms without doubt nostalgic.
            I summoned a dead logger friend’s description of cedar waxwings
            on the bright mountain ash outside his door come middle autumn.
            I remembered how Earl at ninety had called those verdigris birds
            well groomed little folks. Which wasn’t eloquent, no,
            but passion showed in the way Earl waved his workworn hands

            as he thought of beauty, which, according to our guest,
            was opiate. Perhaps. And yet I went on for no reason
            to consider Maori tattoos: elaborate  and splendid,
            Jamaicans shaping Big Oil’s rusty abandoned barrels
            to play on with makeshift mallets, toxic junk turning tuneful.
            The poor you have always with you, said an even more famous speaker,

            supreme narcotic dealer no doubt in our speaker’s eyes  --
            eyes that must never once have paused to behold a bird,
            ears that deafened themselves to the song of that bird or any.
            Beauty’s a drug, he insisted, from which we must wean the poor, 
            indeed must wean ourselves. But I was thinking of beauty
            as something that will return -- here’s Curtis Porter’s sweet horn  --

            outlasting our disputations. I was thinking it never had gone.

Now as I have gotten older, I have more and more sensed the inutility, and even the inhumanity, of polemic. So although at some level, the poem above suggests my skepticism of what has passed for literary study in the past generation (and not coincidentally abetted the precipitous decline in college English majors), I trust it does so by indirection.

If literary study was once devoted to aesthetics (which I acknowledge as itself a reductive perspective), it has lately been transformed into a facet of what’s called “cultural studies.” And a recurring theme in those studies is that “established” authors, past and present, have tended to be mouthpieces for racism, sexism, economic repression, and all the other usual suspects. The poem notes with some irony that, although capital-C capitalism tends to be a major villain in such trendy theory, the majority of its most radical critics seem to work not in community colleges or in impoverished public school districts. No, they preach at places like Harvard, Yale, Brown, Stanford, or Duke. (To which I respond by thinking, well, talk, no matter how high-minded or “progressive,” is as cheap as ever).

Conversely, isn’t it strange that so many of our canonical writers, those reactionaries and repressors, seem to have been very ill served by what they allegedly championed? I think, for example, of the older Melville, for all intents and purposes chalking Xes on travelers’ bags at the custom house he manned, and in the end being called Henry Melville in his Times obituary; of writers from Hart Crane to Ernest Hemingway to John Berryman taking their own lives, many besieged by alcoholic despair; and the list could be almost infinitely protracted.

But having dispensed with such oddities, and too quickly, I concede, I need to consider something more central: namely, that I have yet to meet a single cultural-studies theorist who had even a faint clue about what goes into the actual composition of poem, story, novel or even non-academic essay. How, then, can they so confidently discuss a process that’s utterly foreign to them?

In order to make such an observation, however, I’m merely reversing the microscope through which the trendy critics look at us. Essentially, as the brilliant Marilynne Robinson has pointed out, their assumption is that we don’t know what we are doing, that we are somehow mindless serfs in service to great cultural forces that we can’t grasp. (Isn’t it curious how the most brilliant of our artists remains unaware of his or her intentions, while the theorists are so sharp that their own are based on full and infallible consciousness?)

To be fair, there is some truth to one part of that notion of artistic unawareness. In my own case, at all events, I never know where a piece of writing is going, at least at the outset. In that sense I am, yes, unaware. Or I’d better be: if I’m too clear on where I’m headed, I will experience no discovery in whatever I fashion; I will simply have illustrated ideas or convictions I already knew I owned.

A more serious charge from the hip professoriat is that some of us artists know damned well that we are promoting ideology, of a sort that by the theorists’ lights must inevitably be ugly. And yet, no matter I’ll grant that some writers are ambitious to illustrate “political” ideas acceptable to their constituencies, that some do have agendas and theories of their own, the work that results is almost without exception as dreary as you might expect. This is not a matter of left or right, reactionary or progressive. Check the annals of Soviet socialist realism if you doubt me, or the work of Hitler’s small but slavish cadre of artists.

I would insist that few truly memorable pieces of writing have ever derived exclusively, or even primarily, from  theoretical premises or from ideology. Writers may, of course, generate theories and even elaborate them into the ideological; but I think such theoretical postulation tends to arrive ex post facto. I’d claim that Ezra Pound’s “imagism,” for example, ensued upon his writing a broad range of lyrics in an instinctive way, and then erecting his manifestos based on what they showed him. I bet even he was surprised.

I know, of course, that any modish theorist who reads this will instantly charge me, again, with not knowing what I am up to. I number quite a few such folks among my friends, after all, and I’ve learned that for me to deny their aspersions is merely to convince them further of my ignorance. That’s a frustrating experience, a bit like denying your Oedipal instincts in a Freudian’s presence. He (Freudians are all but inevitably male) will attribute your denials to repression... which of course owes itself to your Oedipal anxieties.

The final irony: all those “progressives” behave (in word if not deed) as if they were champions of the downtrodden and the oppressed. But, to repeat myself, they spend virtually all of their time in one another’s company. Though I won’t for a single embarrassing minute pretend to be a worker-poet, I have spent a lot of my life, for reasons I needn’t go into, in the presence of the dispossessed, especially of people who –talk about downtrodden!–  are illiterate or subliterate. It’s telling to me that, like the African-Americans in our own south who picked up the musical instruments jettisoned by retreating British military bands and produced music that’s the jewel in America’s cultural crown; like the Jamaicans in my poem, who took the rusted barrels left behind in the wake of Big Oil’s Caribbean exploitations and turned them into steel drums: like these other oppressed people, our contemporary society’s most destitute and most “culturally deprived” seem perennially to treasure story, song, lyric.

They cherish beauty, that shibboleth of reactionaries.

But of course, I guess, they incline to the beautiful, or to rich narrative, or to memorable character, simply because they have not had their eyes opened by the ones who speak for them so gallantly, from behind the ivy.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Ellen Bryant Voigt's LessonI(s)

In the community library presentations I’ve been giving since my appointment as state poet, I’m frequently asked which contemporary poets I like to read. It’s a funny thing how that question –obliquely akin, say, to what is my favorite Robert Frost or Elizabeth Bishop or Emily Dickinson poem– seems to tie my tongue. Garrulous by nature, I get over that quickly enough to rattle off a half-dozen names. The program over, I hop into my car and, within seconds of leaving this or that library, I begin to wonder why on earth I didn’t also mention X or Y or Z?

I don’t really have any especial interest, though, in choosing up an A team. My tastes are eclectic enough, for instance, as to let me savor the best of Allen Ginsberg and the best of Donald Justice. I have noted, however, that a name I tend to mention belongs to one of my predecessors as Vermont poet laureate: Ellen Bryant Voigt. Many readers of this blog will know, or at least know of, her superb work. This is meant to remind them of what a local treasure she is, but even more to urge those to whom she remains unknown to dig into that treasure.

Ms. Voigt’s newest collection, just out in October, is Headwaters. Run. Yet I mean to consider an earlier poem here, for no particular reason save that it so lodged itself in my mind when I first came upon it. This was owing in part, no doubt, to the fact that a good friend was just then recovering –successfully, I’m delighted to say– from a full mastectomy. Like the speaker here too, I’m the child of a strongly authoritative female parent.

But the poem, on its intrinsic strengths, would have stuck with me even in the absence of all that:


            Whenever my mother, who taught
            small children forty years,
            already knew the answer.
            "Would you like to" meant
            you would. "Shall we" was
            another, and "Don't you think."
            As in "Don't you think
            it's time you cut your hair."

            So when, in the bare room,
            in the strict bed, she said,
            "You want to see?" her hands
            were busy at her neckline,
            untying the robe, not looking
            down at it, stitches
            bristling where the breast
            had been, but straight at me.

            I did what I always did:
            not weep --she never wept--
            and made my face a kindly
            whitewashed wall, so she
            could write, again, whatever
            she wanted there.

When I talk about poetry in my visits (and have talked in these posts now and then), I contend that what lyric can accomplish – in a way perhaps other modes of discourse ordinarily cannot– is the simultaneous dramatization of a number of emotions, thoughts, and impulses, in one frame, no matter some are flatly contradictory of one another. To that extent, though of course as a practitioner I am biased, the lyric poem seems to me our most effective mode of demonstrating how the mind actually works.

That mind, after all, does not always operate in an entirely consecutive manner. Logic and ratiocination are cultivated skills, and although they do serve us well in many instances, they are helpless, I think, to render that simultaneity and often that contradictoriness in deep human response. Note in “Lesson,” for example, the inevitably mixed feelings one might harbor with respect to so strong a mother as the one in “Lesson.” Again the feelings are contemporaneous.

In Voigt’s account, I’d suggest, we are called upon to admire the sturdiness and lack of self-pity on the part of the recuperating parent, even as we may feel the degree to which those very qualities might have constituted longtime burdens for her child to bear. In our age, when the forthright expression of feeling seems to be all but sacred, the woman in the “strict bed” (how deftly Voigt chooses that figure!) appears to dissuade the speaker from it. And yet is not the mother’s undauntedness at least an equally important value to her daughter’s self-voicing? And mustn’t we, like the writer, acknowledge authority in a woman who “taught small children/forty years” even as one can feel the discomfiture here in the poet’s continuing to be treated in some respects as a small child herself? There may be a degree of condescension in the lesson the older woman passes on, but I sense something exemplary in it too.

Further: when Voigt refers to her mother’s “strict bed,” can’t we recognize that that mother is now enduring her own set of strictures, her disease being no respecter of personality or accomplishment and old habits of mind dying hard in any event? These things alone should allow us to cut her some slack, as the saying goes. Don’t we likewise have more than one understanding of the speaker’s face when she describes it as “a kindly/whitewashed wall...”? We may regret that the speaker feels the need to put on a mask, to be less than “genuine”; on the other hand. there is genuine kindness in her very act of self-disguise.

Needless to say, as in all my commentaries, I here share only my own responses and values. I don’t presume to speak for others, nor to tell them how to read this or any other poetic utterance, all poems of quality being open-ended ones. I mean only to demonstrate how one person’s mind may be moved in that direction of multivalence upon encountering so good a piece of writing as this.

The first Vermont poet laureate once answered a question concerning the "message" of one of his poems rather wryly: “If you’re looking for a message, call Western Union.” Another great American poet of the twentieth century, Wallace Stevens, described the modern poem as one of “the mind in the act of finding/ what will suffice.” In our searches for sufficiency, for what may sustain us, even, say, when facing dreadful disease, I submit that we rarely resort to dialectical thought or settle for simplistic message. No, our paths meander, are omni-inclusive, resist reduction to anything so simple as what we call “meaning.” They are, exactly, acts of the back-and-forthing mind, not essays in disguise. “Lesson” strikes me as making all this clear– marvelously, movingly.

Monday, October 14, 2013

What's the Story?

The following is the prologue (for now at least) and the title essay of the work in progress, from which I excerpted a post late last month. It may get at some of the challenges we humans have, not merely as poets, in trying to be both truthful and coherent in our discourse. I hope, that is, it may do so at least obliquely.

What’s the Story?

You learn a thing or two by getting along in years, or so it’s said. My poor, cursed friend Mike, dead so young, didn’t get a chance to test that claim. He crashed his motorcycle, or rather, someone in a car smashed it for him. That, I suppose, is another story.

But Mike may belong in this one after all, because, after all, he was my dearest friend back then. He was also and always his doting grandmother’s pet. I knew the old woman well, a sweet-as-pie lady if ever there was one. Is that another story too, or stories, plural? Anyone’s personal history doubtless comprises subplots galore; who can be sure which is impertinent?  

In any case, I’m sitting here just now, waiting to see a doctor for minor emotional problems. I’ve visited him with some frequency over time, though never for anything that made him or me or anyone believe I was on the cusp of true crisis. Just a little unease, that’s all. You could roughly liken this appointment to an oil check, I guess.

The waiting room’s walls are yellow, so that may be what’s going on inside me just now. Despite the flowers on their corner tables, that color invades me. It brings a solo hunting trip rocketing out of my far past, because on my way home, all but out of gasoline near midnight and nowhere open to replenish the tank, I spent some doleful hours in a motel in Maine, whose walls were of this same pale hue. 

I’m sure the building was something much different, back when the town thrived. The white clapboard frame house may have taken boarders, but now a flat-roofed row of rooms jutted out from its rear side into a  former pasture. I wouldn’t be surprised if that extension were razed by now, the place turned into a Bed and Breakfast, as has been happening for some time to so many of these old New England home places, so grand and so tired. An out-of-towner buys one, spruces it up, then hangs out a quaintly lettered sign, usually with some name designed to be evocative but in fact absurd: “Quail Acres” maybe, in a part of the world where quail never existed, or, likewise, “Elk Meadow.”

But back to the year I recall here, when the town had little left but a paper mill, itself close to extinction, the industry having moved south to places with cheaper labor: Arkansas, Mississippi, what have you?  I took the room –there was really no choice– though I knew it would be full of an unmistakable mill-stench. Almost fifty years later, merely to think of that sulfurous reek makes me queasy, not to mention actually smelling it as I pass through the few towns where mills have somehow survived, however shakily.

Here is the odd part: that night in the motel I felt I was doomed. Nothing would ever come to good for me. Why such melodrama? I couldn’t and can’t make sense of it, because in fact my life was pretty average at twenty-five, neither particularly good nor bad. In any case, the restless tick-tick-tick of my young dog’s paws  on the scuffed linoleum floor made it seem ten years until morning broke and I could go find fuel at a station down by the tracks. That clatter from my nervous pointer sounded like a prelude to judgment.

As it happens, when I first sat down in the doctor’s office a few minutes ago, I took Psychology Today from a table, finding an article there by a certain Dr. Silver. The doctor opined that a person normally mourns a dog for three weeks. Well, I’ve buried too many dogs since that night I speak of, and whenever I think of one, no matter how long he or she has been dead, I almost weep. On every one of those dogs, be it pet or hunter, there hangs more than one tale.

Of course I don’t weep, really, not out loud, as my friend Mike’s grandmother did off and on until the day she died herself.

Am I so abnormal?  I can’t say, but at all events, that night I pictured a chasm yawning before me, and I felt certain that one day I’d fall into it. And so I did in a way, though at length I’d climb out on the other side– or mostly out, as I’ve said. I’ll talk about that at some other point. It’s hard to stay on track here. 

What made that night in the yellow motel so taxing? What about it induced this vision of the abyss?  That particular dog was, if anything, too alive. Mike still blithely trod the earth– or maybe not blithely, but he did move around on it for certain. Yet somehow I knew, or believed I knew, there was something terribly wrong on that earth, and it involved an evil act or thought of mine, even if I couldn’t for the life of me have said what or when or how.

I remember a train’s passing through that patch of village. It must have furnished the moribund mill. The freight cars’ clanking and rumbling woke me up around daylight, and the engine’s whistle seemed to scream misery and condemnation of my ineffable sin.

I’d keep on living with this kind of vague anguish for years, still unable to give it a name. Things today are better for me, much better, but to this day, I cannot really assign that name, no matter the anguish lurks, all but imperceptibly, deep inside me. How do you work out a narrative when so essential an ingredient is missing?

The spooked dog’s paws.  My long-gone boyhood chum. His sobbing grandma. The train. The stink of the pulp mill. What do I know of psychology? What does anyone know? That I ended up with the wife of my dreams and with five good children and, so far, four grandchildren– well, all that is simply a wonder.

But how will I explain everything to a doctor if I can’t tell it right to myself? What’s the story, really?

Saturday, September 28, 2013

work in progress

I have recently been looking over old poems, ones culled from this or that collection, and it occurred to me that their inadequacies were somehow ones of format. I may be wrong or right about this, but at all events, I have slowly been "translating" them from verse to prose, whose relative suppleness –especially for a poet with formalist leanings like me– seemed more welcoming of their intentions.  

Here are two:

Lame and Sound

Whatever the ailment, he wasn’t right.  You could tell that just by observation, however subtle and oblique I tried to make mine. He didn’t live in our town, but I’d seen him before in that bigger one, where I go now and then to do errands. The least attentive of us couldn’t have missed him–  his home-made walking stick, his filthy parka, the oddly fringed bandana he wore around his head, and above all the way he moved.

His tortured walk involved that bandanna’d head. Glancing sidelong, I could watch the cloth’s fringe flap as he performed a series of frenzied nods, staggering away from the magazine stand where he’d just bought some sort of porn magazine, maybe only Playboy, maybe something even fouler, stupider. In any case, he appeared desperate to vanish, to head for home, whatever home might amount to. 

The little convenience shop was crowded, and any who noticed him looked quickly away, as I say. No one wanted to behold him as he lurched to the hissing door, then through, humping himself along like some shot beast. No one wanted to imagine what he’d ever done, what he did now, what he might do once gone from view.

For my part, as a fall rain hard as a sledge kept thumping the roof, I imagined the pouts of the magazine’s back-cover models. I’d barely glimpsed the colorful advertisement before he vanished, yet for some reason they seared my brain, the glamorous couple in a sleek, red, hide-seated convertible, regarding each other with smoldering eyes.

Yes, that photograph’s still clear in mind. The gorgeous woman’s expression was obviously designed to seem sexual, but to me– although, no, I couldn’t look at it for much longer than a second– her expression crazily resembled the one of the reeling lame man himself, an expression of pain, even anguish.

As for the man in the picture, we were meant to understand that he could speed away at will, like some lithe, wild creature, the sort a car like that would be named for.

Serpent on Barnet Knoll 

The new puppy noses a frozen snake across the rain-glazed snow. How did the little creature meet its end? It is coiled, a replica of its mean-mouthed, living self. It should long since have wriggled deep into mulch on the floor of some granite cleft, so that if it died, and it did, it would do it down there, in secret. Odd enough. 

But my mind’s still odder, having followed its own unmappable, inward paths from that circled corpse  to a moment this morning before I set out: at my mirror, greasing my lips against the cold, I inspected myself. Age-lines, puckering mouth, and gray hair all still surprise me. I considered the wen, a permanent swelling that puffs my left eyebrow into a small horn.  It’s taken the frozen snake to remind me of that passing observation, though how it did so I plain can’t explain.

Out here, I encounter the morning’s savage gusts, which make the thrashing spruce-tops curse and complain. When there’s a lull, I hear the ceaseless and meaningless scolding of red squirrels, the grating of ravens.

One day, way back in my third grade year, I reached for Joe Morey’s hat on the playground. I’d knocked it off, taunting him for a sissy, even though he and I were friends for the most part. Nearly weeping with frustration, Joe reached down for the hat in the same moment. Our heads clapped together, my brow swelling slightly but, as it turned out, forever. I’d meant to be cruel that day, and I was, and I got my long-lasting due.

But now is now. How have sixty-odd years gone by, as the hackneyed old saying has it, in the wink of an eye?

The snake as mere snake was a harmless non-venomous garter. It’s something else now, something that makes me quit my hike for a while. I stand and wait, but nothing comes that will change me. Why would I expect it to, no matter my unvoiced, all but unconscious prayers?

It’s almost Christmas. In decades of northern winters, I’ve never seen such a thing as a snake in the open in December. But however I strive for something significant in the event, nothing reveals itself except what I’ve long known about snakes mere facts, devoid of meaning, versions of reality that seem only somehow to demean me. 

Was this the creature’s first winter? Who knows? A snake doesn’t count or reason.

There are only so many moments, I tritely reflect, in anyone’s life. Why stand here like a statue and fritter a single one away? But what else should I be thinking about out here? I have wife, children, grandchildren, along with a host of lesser earthly attachments. I clench all of them tight to my heart. But there come times when a sort of unattached self prevails.

Off on my own, of course, I might contemplate violence or crime. Also, of course, I don’t. Am I not therefore absolved?  But what about me requires absolution anyhow? I simply feel this deep unsettledness, which is ungovernable, random, and opaque. One day my head struck a temporary enemy’s head, but before that, surely, something had already slithered into my soul sometime, and it lingered, making subsequent and unwelcome forays to the icy surface, whenever, however it might.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

The Case of Martin Farquhar Tupper– and Us

On September 7, I had the great pleasure of attending the marriage of my oldest daughter to a wonderful young man named Chris Simons, and the more taxing pleasure of writing a poem for the occasion. I could summon an entire article about the event or what went into my composition, but neither would be in keeping with what I imagine as my readers’ expectations. So I will concentrate, rather, on an odd development at the wedding.

I’m talking about receiving a gift from one of the bride and groom’s friends: a handsome volume of poems. She had been directed by her mother to present it to me, the flattering assumption being that I of all people she could think of would know how to use it. It seems the book had originally (and anonymously) been presented to the mother’s own great grandfather. It bears the inscription: “Christmas Tree, 1884,” and I picture its lying under lower branches some 130 years back, wrapped in holiday paper.

Its contents were produced by an Englishman, Martin Farquhar Tupper, a contemporary of Tennyson and, in this country, Longfellow. He is, of course, utterly forgotten, no matter the inscription on his headstone: "Although he is dead, he will speak." But in his time Tupper was a more than considerable presence, a member of the Royal Society, recipient of a special gold medal for his literary accomplishments by the King of Prussia, and most impressively, a popular writer. The man sold books! I mean he sold them in such quantity as to make any contemporary poet blink with envy: his “Proverbial Philosophy” (imagine the use of such a title today in other than a satiric manner!) went through forty British editions in three decades, and just under a million copies were sold in the United States! The mind boggles.

The volume I received is primarily notable for how beautiful it is as physical object; we moderns could envy that as well. But the only commentary on his oeuvre that I’s able to could is by W.S. Gilbert, of Gilbert and Sullivan fame:

Tell me, Henry Wadsworth, Alfred, Poet Close, or Mister Tupper,
Do you write the bonbon mottoes my Elvira pulls at supper?"

"But Henry Wadsworth smiled, and said he had not had that honour;
And Alfred, too disclaimed the words that told so much upon her."

"Mister Martin Tupper, Poet Close, I beg of you inform us";
But my question seemed to throw them both into a rage enormous."

"Mister Close expressed a wish that he could only get anight to me.
And Mr. Martin Tupper sent the following reply to me:--"

"A fool is bent upon a twig, but wise men dread a bandit."
Which I think must have been clever, for I didn't understand it.

I can’t seem to identify “Poet Close,” though Tennyson and Longfellow’s names remain familiar. Whoever he may be, though, he is twitted brilliantly– and thoroughly, just like Martin Tupper.

Why should this tiny bit we know of Tupper come by way of ridicule? Well, let me quite a verse or two. I select at random, but the book at large is in every sense symptomized by the following:

                  Few and precious are the words which the lips of wisdom utter;
                  To what shall their rarity be likened? What price shall count their worth?...
                  They be chance pearls, flung among the rocks by the sullen waters of Oblivion,
                  Which diligence loveth to gather, and hang around the neck of Memory...etc.

Somewhat remarkably, especially for Tupper’s era in British verse, we hear no rhyme, detect no metric regularity. But then, that’s equally true of Walt Whitman, whom we rightly idolize, so it can’t be adequate reason to dismiss Tupper. Surely enough, his “verse” seems like so much prose arbitrarily cut into line-units, which is what many seem to think distinguishes free verse in any case. But if I were able here to recite aloud any passage, say, from Whitman’s “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloomed,” that magisterial elegy to the slain Abraham Lincoln, I think the great man’s cadences and his lyrical energies, so lacking in Tupper, would quickly manifest themselves.

Instead, we can poke fun at Tupper’s rather clumsy handling of metaphor: words of wisdom are likened, quite predictably and thus tritely, to pearls. But then the pearls are flung among rocks. What flings them? The waters of Oblivion, which something called diligence (search me) hangs around the neck of Memory. Pearls-waters-rocks-neck. Get it? Neither do I.  Perhaps, as Gilbert put it, the formulation was “clever, for I didn't understand it.”

And yet I think our chief objection to Tupper’s poetry is its moral certitude. Here is a speaker who feels entirely at ease with making pronouncement on what Wisdom is. And again, he does not shrink from using such other abstractions as oblivion and diligence and memory. We simply don’t trust that sort of stance anymore, and why not?

Well, however conscious I am that I’m reducing immense cultural transformations to simplism here, I’d venture that the political and military violence of the last century (which, alas, abides into this one) has a lot to do with our mistrust. Not long after Tupper’s heyday, the shocking cataclysm that we name Word War I came to pass; that was the one, remember, that our nation entered in order to “make the world safe for democracy.” Then World War II. And to this day, we leap into conflict on the basis of equally abstract slogans and catch-words: Security, Freedom, Human Dignity, Axis of Evil, what have you? I don’t necessarily grind a particular political axe when I note that such lofty rhetoric rarely accord with what transpires on the blood-soaked ground. Socialist worker’s paradise didn’t work out so well, either, did it?

Skepticism toward that type of abstraction, or any, really, was expressed by the ruminations of Hemingway’s protagonist in his brilliant story, “The Gambler, The Nun, and the Radio”: “Liberty, what we believed in, now the name of a McFadden publication.” In short, talk –however elevated– is cheap, and too frequently deceptive. When an author assures us of what capital-W Wisdom is (or Duty, or Decency, or even Beauty), we are nowadays apt to shout, “Oh yeah? Who are you to say so?”

But why make Martin Tupper into a straw man? That is not my intention. I’m more inclined to reflect on the fragility and uncertainty of literary effort, not to mention reputation. The Nobel Prize for literature in its first ten years, for example, was awarded to the following:

1907 : RUDYARD KIPLING (Britain)
1906 : GIOSUE` CARDUCCI (Italy)

Of these, I suspect, even quite literate people will have heard only of Kipling; literary specialists may know Sully Prudhomme’s name. But Carducci? Sienkewicz? Likely not.

Most of us contemporary poets have very high regard for the late Nobel laureate Seamus Heaney; but who’s to say that in a century’s time he won’t be as obscure a figure as Rudolf  Eucken? Or poor Martin Farquhar Tupper?

My overall response to the Tupper volume I received at the wedding, and to the list above, might well be a melancholic one. If I had to bet, I’d surely say that my own work will be taken out of circulation in due course by that severest of anthologists, time itself. I might therefore ask, why bother? Isn’t it entirely possible that, even as I lampoon Tupper’s jumbled metaphors, any future reader of my oeuvre will find techniques and tendencies equally laughable? Probably. But I don’t know.

I don’t know and I don’t care. My reaction, in fact, is rather blithe. That none of us authors will ever know in his or her lifetime whether he or she is any good feels to me more like a relief than a damnation. I can go about my business, which turns out to be that of minor artist (all poets, compared, say, to medical pioneers, fitting that description), utterly unchained by fears for my name down the years. To consider the eminent Martin Farquhar Tupper is to be schooled in humility– and for my money, there is more freedom than confinement on graduating from that school.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

a new poem

I haven't a lot to put up this week, the last week having been so centered on our oldest daughter's wedding. She and her wonderful partner have been living together for some time, and have produced, in fact, a twin grandson and -daughter, Creston and Ivy, among the very brightest lights of our lives. But I suppose I am still old-fashioned enough to rejoice in this "official" commitment.

Oldest son Creston makes custom electric guitars (true works of art:, and is thus well acquainted in the music world: he recruited a kick-ass band if there ever was one, led by the nonpareil Mark Spencer (well worth Googling too). So it was a thoroughly joyous event.

My wife of thirty years and I are headed to our Maine cabin again. I have a board retreat to attend for the Downeast Lakes Land Trust, of which I am current president. (Check But we'll sneak in a few days of r & r before and after.

To that extent, the valedictory poem I wrote early last month upon closing up (or so I thought) the cabin is a touch off with respect to the occasion I imagined it to mark. But I'll post it anyhow. I kinda like it.


Final Evening at Oxbrook Camp

            Our loons still scull on the pewter
            calm of the lake, the chick having dodged
            the eagle one more day.
            The valorous drake and hen both held it
            between their bodies while the raptor circled. 
            Reprieve. And here I am, old.

            I stooped an hour ago
            to dump the pail of dace I’d trapped,
            then watched them scatter, the ones
            we hadn’t hooked through their dorsals for bait.
            Twenty or so now swim at large–
            still prey, but not to us,

            Who are headed home in the morning.
            I’m poised to throw away this clutch
            of wilting black-eyed Susans
            picked wild by my wife of all these years
            to grace our painted metal table,
            where we lifted ladders of spine

            from fat white perch, last supper.
            So here I am, this aging man
            who wants somehow to write
            only one love song after another.
            I pause at dusk, I blink, I toss
            Our dim bouquet into late summer’s woods.

Sunday, September 1, 2013

For Donald and John

The following is a short little essay that originally appeared in the excellent Vermont-based magazine, Northern Woodlands. It is not poetry, but some of its –what?– impulses tend to inform my work in that genre.

For Donald and John

My friend John the blacksmith lent me an old book, A Natural History of Trees, by Donald Culross Peattie, which is both quaint and authoritative. Maybe it’s this combination of qualities that made the farrier beam as he handed it to me, saying,It’s perfect.”

When I got home, I first turned to the chapter on the hop hornbeam, a tree I’ve always treasured, although I’ve never really figured out why. After all, it’s a killing wood to chop or work, as I’ve often proved to myself. No wonder its folk names are ones like ironwood or lever-wood. Mr. Peattie muses that everything about this little tree is at once serviceable and self-effacing.  Such members of any society are easily overlooked, but well worth knowing.”

I looked up from that passage and thought of John himself; he’s a bright man, but reticent, self-effacing – and tough as ironwood. And I thought, so to speak, through John to a long gone friend, Don Chambers, who once told me how he’d cut hornbeam all through one winter. Back in his time, before the arrival of synthetics in any quantity, the rigid and tight-grained wood was used for stretcher handles or coffin-grips. I recall his telling me, “By God, you didn’t want them loads to tumble.”

Illness and death called on the lever-wood’s strengths, so it may be odd for me to make of this scurfy tree a token of life and health. But who’s going to notice, really? And can’t I anyhow forge some symbol from the tree’s fruit, which stands on the branch right on through winter, a mast for deer and grouse and whatever else may seek it? Perhaps searching for another sort of nurture, I’ve now and then plucked some florets to lay on my desk, for however brief a time, as if in the bitter-coldest months, putting them there might also help to sustain a household.
I once used five cord of hop hornbeam to heat our house through the winter months, having left the logs unsplit. The maul couldn’t crack them, and when I tried a wedge, I buried it down in the heartwood. There was no way to fetch that metal back but to burn the log and fetch it out of the fire, as John does a shoe.

I smile as I picture him when he handed me his book. He was dressed as always in greens,
his beard swept sideways to his face from laying a cheek against the flank of a horse, I suspect. Though he owns a small herd of Suffolk Punch for his own pleasure, he doesn’t make a living putting shoes on working stock these days. In my mind’s eye, he has shaped the shoe on his forge and plunged it deep into the bucket of hissing water, and now is nailing it fast.

I’ve lived my life by words alone for the most part and somehow been more recognized for that
than I’d ever have imagined. Suddenly I’m the state poet laureate, a post that thrills and humbles me at once. I’ve been talking and talking and talking, writing and writing and writing, more than ever, and I’ve been doing both for forty years at that.  So as I imagine two terse men who found entirely different ways through the world, steady ones who’ve made more palpable gestures than any I ever have, I get an odd feeling, or perhaps –no definitely– a mixture of feelings. I’d surely be wrong to name it simple envy. It’s better than that. Is it love or admiration – or both?  Doubtless. And others, less easy to name.

I dream John whispering not to a saddle horse but to a great blond Belgian gelding. He holds the nails
in his teeth, the hoof as wide as an old-time privy seat-cover.

And, under a sky so blue it’s really some other color, also beyond description, Don still drives his saw through ironwood, his wire spectacles glinting in the January sun . Even through his plaid mackinaw, I can see those cannonball biceps in his short arms. If he took off his chopper’s mitts to greet me, I’d feel the calluses of decades in the north woods.

It would be a good thing, I surmise, to let these good and honest men direct me at least for the rest of the day.

In another era, this might be the point at which the author addressed his “gentle reader,” tacking on a moral of some sort. And since I am, precisely, summoning two figures from another era, I’ll go ahead and do it, minus the moral, because I can’t say what my moral would be:

Gentle reader, perhaps you will tell me that these things and people and labors that so obsess me are worth nobody’s notice in our time, that I’m only sentimental, that the best thing I might do would be to write a poem, a not untypical elegy, or even a book of poems about all such matter. Even if I did, of course, it would scarcely be what John calls a perfect book. That’s beyond the reach of a wordsmith, even if perfection might be possible for a blacksmith, or for a dear old lumberjack, the one who –along with a horseman– started me thinking this way in the first place.


Wednesday, August 21, 2013

How Does a Poem Get Started?

A recent letter to my local paper rebuked the Vermont state poet’s failure in his monthly columns to “advocate for all poetry, not just poetry he likes.” Duly chastened, then, I’ll here be discussing Edgar Guest’s “It Takes a Heap o’ Livin’ to Make a House a Home.” No, wait: how about my friend’s ten limericks about her Brittany spaniel?

I play at absurdity only because my critic’s own directive is absurd: would we expect a medical columnist, say, to “advocate for all medical procedures"? ("Today I’ll consider the intriguing practice of bleeding the patient….") It is also, well, impossible to honor: how would a single man or woman in any field command its entire range? Anyone  –poet laureate, dentist, farmer, potter, on and on– will have his or her personal preferences. The best such a person can do is to acknowledge that they are personal, as I have taken some pains to do in these columns.

In short, I have no interest in posing as a man who knows How To Do It, because there are just too many ways to do it. For similar reasons, I have largely shied away from talking about my own work, either in the column or on this blog, lest I appear to be holding myself up as some sort of model. But I make an exception now, prompted by a question I was asked for the thousandth time during my last library visit prior to my temporary absence from Vermont,  from that monthly column, and from this blog: how does a poem come into being?

I emphasize the frequency of that question not to dismiss it either as irrelevant or shallow. The opposite: I stress just how important it seems to be to listeners, as evidenced too by how many further questions it prompts. I’ll try to touch on several, if you will pardon a little rambling, but I have no choice in this respect but to discuss a poem of my own; again, since I’m the only one I can safely speak for. If a reader can profit from my comments, I'll be happy. If not, that won't be my long life's first failure.

I remember that store, and the nasty redneck whose stink
seemed a challenge to everyone in it.  The scene
is decades old, but I’m still confused that no one
took up the challenge --  including me, though I liked
an occasional fight back then.  The prospect of pain

meant less to me once, I guess.   An aneurism
had just killed my brother, so the pain I’m talking about
was my body’s.  I breathed up another pain that day.
I checked the man’s beat pickup;  why would he want them,
those skunks knee-deep in its bed?  I left the lot

still more confused, my sweet retriever shivering
on the seat beside me.  The godawful smell still clung
to the dog’s wet coat, and my own. There’d be no more hikes
for us that morning:  rain had arrived, bone-chilling.
If you killed a skunk, why would you keep the thing? 

To kill some time, I stopped at The Jackpot View.
We’ve always called it that.  Five mountaintops bled
into mists to my east in New Hampshire.  The sudden squalls
spilled leaves on the woods-floor’s pall of nondescript hue.
Now he was dead.  Now my brother was dead. 
I can’t define any God, but only this morning,
I caught a whiff of road-killed skunk and thought
I could speak of Him or Her or It as surely
as I could tell you the slightest thing concerning
the man I’m remembering now, the one who shot

or trapped or clubbed those miserable reeking creatures.
The smallest enigmas we ever encounter remain
as hard to explain as all the epical ones.
I’ve failed for years to fathom the death of my brother;
but it’s just as hard to understand why a scene
in an old Vermont store should linger like dead-skunk odor,
which if you’ve lately been tainted comes back to scent you
whenever a rain blows in --  or like some pains
you may have thought you’d forever gotten over,
but which at some odd prompting come back to haunt you.

On the most basic level, this poem started in the way I suggest in stanza five: "only this morning, I caught a whiff of road-killed skunk."  I was simply driving down to Newbury village when I passed the roadkill, and the odor– isn't smell the most suggestive of the senses, the least willed?– took me back. I thought, as I had for many years off and on, about the man who, so very strangely, had all those dead skunks in his truck; to recall that episode was to recall that it had followed hard on the death of my younger brother. The poem ensued from this association.

According to my Draft Copies folder, I began “Fathomless” in May of '09 and got it to the version above in October. The folder shows 24 stabs at getting it right. To be sure, some of the changes in late drafts were pretty minor, a word here, a phrase there, but that much revision is not uncommon for me. And, perhaps oddly, revision is the part of making a poem that I most enjoy. It is the process whereby I discover, so to speak, what the poem wants to be. If I know that too clearly before I start, there is no thrill of discovery in the writing, and thus the result, as a rule, will be wooden and labored.

Which leads me to the issue of inspiration. How much of a poem, people want to know, is somehow granted to me and how much the result of persistent effort?  Again speaking only for myself, what some call "inspiration" is really the operation of selective memory in my case.  Certain experiences suddenly come back to me in odd combination, ones often having nothing, apparently, to do with one another.   The poem is "about" what in fact they do have to do with each other, which has to be something after all, merely because I'm the one to whom they occurred.

Technical decisions are crucial here, though to distinguish between content and technique is an error that we English teachers too often make. How something is said is part of what we may refer to as its meaning. I, for example, tend to be something of a formalist poet, neither so gifted nor so meticulous, of course, as a master like Frost. This has nothing to do with ideology– nor even with taste. I am as moved by an excellent Allen Ginsberg poem as I am by a fine sonnet by Richard Wilbur. It’s simply that formalist inclinations are the ones I find enabling; many do not, and I haven’t the least impulse to fault them for alternate approaches.

The form in “Fathomless” seems obvious enough: five-line stanzas, five-stress lines, and rhymes or slant rhymes in lines 2 and 5.  I wrote, as always, a very quick draft of what came at me.  I saw that I had drafted X number of lines (more than are here now) and fooled around with finding a common divisor that would break the draft into stanzas of equal length. (I should interject that two of the meters, tetrameter and pentameter, come at me much more effortlessly than any free-verse mode, a fact that even I don't quite understand.)  Then I noticed that those second and fifth lines rhymed, or nearly did, in one of the stanzas, and I fiddled around with making that true of them all. And so on. 

Mere doodling.... which may sound mechanical as can be, which it likely would be for someone else.  For me, to doodle in such a fashion is to engage in play, and to abandon myself to what are, a bit fuzzily, called the "musical" properties of language. Above all, the playing around provides me a way to get past any too strenuous effort to mean something. In a word, this non-method allows the language and its formalities to lead me by the nose, so to speak; I just tag along wherever they take me –sometimes to a poem, sometimes to a mess– and I usually like the ride in any case.

In most cases, as was true of the poem above, it is well to let a poem “sit” before I send it off for editorial consideration. My revisions tend to be both sporadic and long-lasting: I’ll drop the poem into a desk drawer for greater or lesser spells between revisions. Yes, each of of us who writes with any persistence knows that now and then a poem seems to arrive at no cost to our energies, almost as if some Muse were rewarding us for all the hours we put into the other kind. But these freebie poems are the exceptions. We are fated to revise, which, etymologically (and tellingly), means we must re-see. And new vision is easier to come by if we have looked away for some time.

At one point or another in many a Q & A, I’ll be asked to talk about fact and fiction and how a poem negotiates these values. That depends, of course, on the poem’s own intentions.  In the case of “Fathomless,” everything is fact; or at least that's true –to use circular logic– of the factual parts.  If I say here that I lost a brother, for instance, that must be verifiable.  This is not a moral stance, though I do feel some unease when writers fake experience by way of making themselves look admirable or (pleeeeease) sensitive, so much as it is a stance, once more, that enables me. I am, I guess, a realist Poet, to use a reductive label, though I’m happy to follow William Blake or James Merrill into many an “unrealistic” domain.
For whom, I may be asked, do I write? Well, the reader I envision is usually one neighbor, or a composite of several.  Many of these men and women represent crusty, feisty, laconic and occasionally even xenophobic Vermont hill farm stock, or what's left of it. They are in most cases dear friends, though they’ll never read a word of mine, unless maybe something in prose.  For the umpteenth time, however, I must stress that this trick, this conjuring of such neighbors, is only one that enables me; I know it makes no sense on earth, and it surely would not work for many a different author.
Another question I often encounter has to do, too, with visions and re-visions: do I ask for outside opinions about poems before I ask for an editor’s? Well, some: my wife knows me better than anyone, so she's in many ways my best critic.  She can tell me, chiefly, when I am faking it, maybe even trying to make myself  look "sensitive" in that phony way.  I tease her that she's a recovering lawyer; in fact, she's a professional mediator. She is also brilliant and highly literate, but –and this is important to me– she is not literary.   Fleda Brown, one of my favorite poets and friends, one with whom I collaborated lately on a book called Growing Old in Poetry,  is of course literary, and she also sees much of what I do; so does Stephen Arkin, who's not a poet (he taught literature for four decades at San Francisco State and was my closest grad school pal) but is exquisitely attuned to language and is another keep-him-honest reader, knowing me as thoroughly as he does.

The French poet Paul Valery once said that a poem is never finished, only abandoned.  True enough. I made “Fathomless” as good as it was going to get, given such capacities as I own. Then I moved elsewhere, as I seem to keep doing.