Saturday, June 29, 2013

My Lecture at Southern Vermont College: "Look Within, See Beyond"

Here is a link to an essay I gave in Southern Vermont College's series on, essentially, left brain-right brain interactions.

My Poem "Blind, Dumb"

This is a link to Diane Lockward's excellent blog, which lately featured a poem from my most recent collection, I Was Thinking of Beauty. On that blog, she has reproduced "Blind, Dumb," has posted a recording I made of the poem, and included my responses to her very bright interview questions about the work's genesis and its execution.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

A Worthy Succession at "The Writer's Almanac"

            What Followed Your Birth

            You might not like being reminded
            of your birthday, Father said,
            but your mother & I do. Your
            birth was a happy occasion.
            What followed was both good
            & bad. That was to be expected,
            but what we didn't expect was
            that you'd be the last of your friends
            to get a job, which you still haven't
            gotten yet. It just took you longer
            to get started. You had to go back
            to school. That wouldn't have been so bad
            if you were learning something, but
            after all these years to still not know
            what you want for a present doesn't
            speak well for education.

This is a poem read by Garrison Keillor on “The Writer’s Almanac” a month ago. Am I alone in finding it pretty bad? More radical still, am I alone in finding that with Keillor’s succession by Billy Collins the quality of the daily poems on that radio spot has improved significantly?

Mind you, I owe not a thing to Billy Collins, am repaying no debt here. Indeed, Collins’s anthology excludes me entirely. That doesn’t matter a tad. It’s a good anthology, considerably better, I believe, than Keillor’s own Pretty Good Poems...which also excludes me. (A lot of poets who regard themselves as sophisticated dislike Billy Collins himself. Not me. I like him a lot at his best, and rarely dis-like him even at less than his best. My suspicion is that the sophisticates’ real beef with him is that he is –gasp– so popular.)

Keillor’s problem, I think, no matter I’m grateful for his fixing the radio spotlight on poetry, even my own, is that pretty good often tends for him to be the high bar, with notable exceptions like poems by a William Matthews or a B.H. Fairchild. Thus, many of the poems he chose that went under that bar were as weak as the one above.

Why do I call it weak? Well, one of the things I have been stressing as Vermont laureate in my library visits, which now number eighty, is the way in which a good poem can make us contemplate the same situation from several different angles of vision, and can do so simultaneously. That’s among poetry’s real distinctions, and for me, its delights. The poem reproduced at the outset, on the other hand, resembles nothing so much as a one-line joke. Such a joke may occasion laughter –though I didn’t even get a snicker out of “What Followed Your birth”– but after you’ve heard it once, you aren’t apt to go back to it.

Of course, we all know that Billy Collins writes jokey poems himself.

            The History Teacher

            Trying to protect his students' innocence
            he told them the Ice Age was really just
            the Chilly Age, a period of a million years
            when everyone had to wear sweaters.

            And the Stone Age became the Gravel Age,
            named after the long driveways of the time.

            The Spanish Inquisition was nothing more
            than an outbreak of questions such as
            "How far is it from here to Madrid?"
            "What do you call the matador's hat?"

            The War of the Roses took place in a garden,
            and the Enola Gay dropped one tiny atom on Japan.

            The children would leave his classroom
            for the playground to torment the weak
            and the smart,
            mussing up their hair and breaking their glasses,

            while he gathered up his notes and walked home
            past flower beds and white picket fences,
            wondering if they would believe that soldiers
            in the Boer War told long, rambling stories
            designed to make the enemy nod off.

What’s so deft about this poem, it seems to me, what so completely distinguishes it from the other, is not the genuine laughs it provides; nor is it the sad commentary on how feckless we are in our efforts to sustain innocence amid a world of war and bullying; nor is it the evocation of the teacher’s palpable awkwardness; nor is it the ambiguity of the teacher’s person (are his motives noble or craven or –most intriguingly– both? does he seek to delude the kids out of concern for them or because he is lazy– or, again, both?). No, it is the coexistence of all these motifs, and more, that makes it so successful.

The humor is part of the pathos, and vice-versa. The teacher’s fumbling efforts echo those of the poet, who is also trying to make everything, including his poem, come right against all odds. And the author’s language, so apparently and deliberately artless, seems to me exactly on the money. How much sadness and hope and despair, what brute realism and what longing are compacted into a passage like this:

            The children would leave his classroom
            for the playground to torment the weak
            and the smart,
            mussing up their hair and breaking their glasses,

            while he gathered up his notes and walked home
            past flower beds and white picket fences...

The very imagery of the picket fences and the flowerbeds strikes me as brilliantly selected. Conversely, it seems notable to me that the poem I quoted at the start contains no imagery at all. It seems, that is, unconcerned with creating a flesh-and-blood world in which we may, so to speak, move around and live and breathe. Its poet is too eager to get to the punch line; everything that precedes is mere set-up for that.

The author of “What Followed Your Birth” is first and foremost, I’m informed, a slam poet, and that fact allows me to respond in a general way to something that’s often asked of me in the Q&A following one of my presentations. What do I think of slam poetry? Well, fact is, I like it. I think it’s entertaining. I have even heard a slam poem or two that I felt was –if scarcely in a class with “The History Teacher,” well, pretty good. But by its very nature the slam format seems to call forth the likes of the poem to which I am objecting here: a poem whose aim is for quick and clever effect. Given its circumstances, we can’t be expect it to be genuinely contemplative, as, I think, the Collins poem above emphatically is in the end. Nor can we expect it to invite genuine contemplation from its hearer.

Perhaps Garrison Keillor was attracted to “What Followed Your Birth” –and to several others by the same writer that he read over time in his NPR slot– precisely because he is a man who has himself made a career of improvisatory, quick effect, usually of a comic kind. He is, I’ll grant, awfully good at that.

English teachers –and I don’t exempt myself from the very charge I level here– often make a distinction between technique and content, form and substance. For a writer, I’d argue, this distinction is a false or at least an impoverished one. Were we to “translate” a poem by Emily Dickinson, say, into free verse format, all that we vaguely label its meaning would be utterly altered, all that –with equal vagueness– we call its music would evaporate. It’s the way that its words are put together that makes it poetry, after all.

I’m wary, as my readers and hearers know, of asserting that a given piece of writing is “not poetry,” period. And yet, though perhaps I am wrong, I can’t imagine a loss of any kind to the poem with which I opened if it were simply written down as the prose passage it so starkly resembles.

            You might not like being reminded
            of your birthday, Father said,
            but your mother & I do. Your
            birth was a happy occasion.

Would anything be sacrificed if the “Your” of that third line were dropped to begin the fourth, which would seem its proper place anyhow? Or consider

            to school. That wouldn't have been so bad
            if you were learning something, but

Is there some imperative for “to school” to be juxtaposed with “That wouldn’t be so bad”? And why on earth does the next line end on so inconsequential a word as but? So on.

All right. I don’t mean to whip any dead horses, and again, I don’t want to pose as the assured authority I scarcely resemble, even (or especially) to myself. I simply believe that the poem I have criticized fails to provide the rich and various perspective I treasure in good lyric, and that its language is utterly undistinguished. But maybe what I’m really getting at here is: Welcome to the “Almanac,” Billy. Be well, keep doing good work, and keep on keeping in touch.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Some –bless them– have inquired about the DVD of my concert with the Vermont Contemporary Music Ensemble, which involved the work of five wonderful composers, who wrote works in response to poems of mine.

The format has me reading a poem, followed by the responsive composition. There are ten poems and nine of these superb musical respsonses. The concert was entitled "Lovely All These Years," and the DVD is available from VCME's director.

Checks should be for $12, made out to "VCME," and should be sent to the following address:

Steven Klimowski
PO Box 67
Fairfax VT 05454-0067

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Little Squalls

I have been deep in the Maine woods –far from Internet, phone, etc.– with my fabulous bride of thirty years. While I have little to "show" for the visit, the pleasures of her company, the wonders of nature (moose, bear, deer, otter, loons, ducks galore), and the melancholy satisfaction of catching up with what few elders remain in that part of the state, of which I have written at length in A North Country Life, are resonant and will remain so for good.

I did manage to draft the following poem, which will doubtless need more consideration.

Little Squalls

To stand at the sink drying dishes feels routine,
Except that the sun seems to drop so quickly,
Like a china plate he might fumble. 
He can all but sense the crash, if not with his ears.
His wife just left for a visit to a far-off city,

And her exit at sunfall engenders a mild inner ruckus.
Running late, she offered too brief a goodbye.
Her taillights plunged down the lane
–Though the day isn’t yet full dark– like odd little comets.
He wants her back before she gets out of sight. 

For whatever reason, he recalls having tripped on a trail
This morning, and feeling the lancet-like prick
Of a dead underbough near an eye.
It appeared a sort of wonder: he’d been spared for the moment,
Which made him silently say, I ought to direct

My thanks somewhere. But rather he stood clod-still,
The same as now, moving only a thumb
To tamp his tiny wound.
His response was far from distinctive– he thought
How his loves were so fragile. He couldn’t stare up at the sun,

But in mind he watched it gallop down the heavens.
Closer by, a phoebe bobbed on a bough
While the woods-floor’s springtime smells
Blended with ones of a winter not quite subsided.
The event made the same small squall in him as no:

Two in one day.
                                    The bird’s twitching tail showed no greeting,
There’d be nothing eternal in married affection.
New sap would drip into duff.
He sees how deluded he’s been if he ever believed
Dear things could last, or could be –if they did– sufficient.

Sunday, June 2, 2013

Why I Believe


Despite the attacks of writers like the late, erudite gadfly Christopher Hitchens, I sustain my faith. Or rather, my faith sustains me.

On which more directly. I feel, however, that I must indulge in some autobiography before I consider any such issue

I was raised among what some call God’s Frozen People, the Episcopalians. I rather liked all the ritual and liturgy (my father’s church was High; I can still smell incense); I liked even more the sonorities of the King James Bible, especially the Psalms, the basis of responsive readings between priest and congregation; and I simply loved the music performed by Tommy Something, church organist, a master of that unruly and elegant instrument, who could vernacularize when he chose -- slipping into such rock-ribbed things as “Old Rugged Cross” and “Amazing Grace” -- even if his main repertoire was German baroque. I felt closer to God by way of the music than ever I did by way of the priest’s rather plummy sermons.

The music took me someplace. It still does, but that’s another story.

When I arrived at Yale College in 1960, I discovered that the hippest and most sophisticated of my schoolmates were atheists, or at least agnostics, and, provincial and sheepish as I was, I tried as hard as I could to affect such edgy secularism. But God, or at least a thirst for God, simply wouldn’t let me be.

As I proceeded with my education, the modern civil rights struggle began to boil. I was instinctively drawn to its ambitions, and conscious that many of its most cogent spokespersons were driven in large measure by Christian urges. This was of course most evident on a national scale in the person of Dr. King; locally, the fervor and eloquence of Yale’s own controversial chaplain, William Sloane Coffin, bore down on me mightily.

By the time I needed to decide what to do with my life as an adult, I was torn between graduate programs in the humanities and seminary. Luckily (and I say this more for the sake of whatever parishioners might have had to put up with me than for another reason), I chose to pursue a Ph.D. in Comparative Literature.

In due course I took a job in the English department at Dartmouth College, and after four years or so, my chairman (a friend until he died) said that although I was reasonably well regarded by my senior colleagues, I needed to publish, lest as the cant phrase had it, I perish.

I dusted off my dissertation, a tract written under the influence of the early Yale theorists, one inscrutable to everyone including its author, and hied me to the college library. In those days of the early seventies, Publish or Perish did not yet mean that one had to write books that no one would read, merely articles that no one would read, and I thought I might tweak one or two chapters from the dissertation for periodical publication.

But merely to consider the job literally nauseated me. (To indicate how perverse I had been in choosing my topic, with which I won’t bother anyone here, suffice it to say that most of the texts to be considered were in German... which is the one major western European language I don’t really know much at all.)

I suddenly said, aloud, at age 34, This is not what I want to do when I grow up.

I proceeded to work at my crude poetry, and like a tiger. I was lucky early, even getting a few poems in the likes of The New Yorker and The Atlantic, and landing a first book of poems in a scandalously short time. (Competition was less keen in those days, thank God.)

Now publishing “creative” work did not count in those days as real publishing, and I knew my persistence in poetry would cost me my job. But Jesus’ old injunction to take no thought for the morrow, though I wasn’t yet thinking in such explicity Christian terms, prevailed, and I trusted that, if I let the chips fall, they would fall in a good place. I soon had a job at Middlebury College, where the tradition of writer-professors was pretty longstanding.

I will now cut to the chase. Though I believed even then that my choice had been God-directed, and had put me in a good circumstance, there was something radically amiss in my spiritual life. Alcoholism, which has always run riot in my family, was taking that life over, spirits replacing the Spirit, and I didn’t even know it, though my marriage had collapsed, and though there seemed less and less point in churning out this poetry stuff.

I would, I needed to -- bottom out. I found myself in a locked psych ward, with nothing I had or had ever done a thing to be proud of. I had a wonderful new wife and terrific children, but I was, despite myself, alienated from them, because I had become a drinking machine; I worked to support my addiction. Drink was, incredibly and horrifyingly, my life.

My two oldest children had delivered me to the hospital, God bless them, and I’m not sure what would have happened in the absence of tranquilizers and sedatives those first two days.  On the third day, however, as I lay there in my utter shame and desolation, a Voice said, It’ll be all right, and I can remember a great weight lifting from my body then, and a great tranquility settling on my soul.

The voice was colloquial, undramatic. No bolts of thunder, no great supervention of light. Just the peace that passeth all understanding.

By the grace of the God I heard, along with the fellowship of kindred souls in recovery, I have not found it necessary to take up alcohol or any substitute since that third day. And that’s been a long time now.

To loop back a bit, the peace I felt that night was something like the odd and disembodied feeling I had on hearing the great church music, low and high, of my childhood. I can’t adequately describe it, even if I sometimes (perhaps always?) try to do so in my written work. It does not admit of syllogistic consideration.

This sustaining peace has nothing therefore to do with theology, an enterprise that once tempted me and that still fascinates and stimulates. Theology (and anti-theology and all modes of “criticism”) are, after all, human constructs, and my faith is not in humanity but in a higher power... without which, I am convinced, I would be either drunk or drugged now -- or likelier, dead.

I pray a lot. I pray almost constantly, more out of church than in. I pray for other addicts, especially those still sick and suffering, and I also pray for family, friends, saints and strangers. It just seems important to get outside myself: devotion to liquor was, after all, devotion to self in its least exalted avatar, and insistence on the superiority of my own thinking took me to the nuthouse.

The two principal prayers I reserve for myself are as simple as simple gets: Help me and Thank You.

Uncannily, or perhaps not uncannily at all, there is a pragmatic benefit in this mode of living: whenever I put myself into the hands of the power I choose to call God, my life goes well, my heart feels serene; when I take it back and try to run the show unaided, I don’t drink, no, but I revert to that mess of a man I want to leave behind.

I don’t usually talk about my faith except to people who share it, primarily fellow addicts in recovery. It is not something that lends itself to ratiocination, let alone sound-bite rebuttal of the Hitchenses and Dawkinses of the world; it is at once too profound and too simple. It doesn’t make good controversy, because controversy, to me, runs against its grain.

I don’t engage, either, in hostilities toward people of other religious persuasions (I intentionally imply that Hitchens and his ilk, deeply sentimental about their skepticism, have their own “religious” orthodoxies) -- I don’t fight with Roman Catholics, Evangelicals, Seventh Day Adventists, whatever. Paul enjoined me from such dispute in a letter to the Romans: Who are you to judge another’s servant?

I recently heard of a judge’s asking a Native American to “tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.” His translator seemed to struggle, and at length rendered the man’s reply: “I don’t know what the whole truth is,” he said. “I only know what I know.”

Same here. I am an ignorant man; I do know that much. But so, I suspect, are many of the refined intellects that would call my experience a vapid emotional cure. They are ignorant because they don’t know the whole truth. They are, after all, human.

I do know the hospital experience I’m recounting was real, because I was there, as surely as I am here now with a prospect onto the Vermont woods that have surrounded me for years. Real as that. If this constitutes an emotional cure, Ill surely take it over no cure at all.

There is one who has all knowledge. I’ve met Him/Her/It, and more than once.

That One helps me. I thank that One.


“I’ll be quick,” he says, and he is.

To speak to our group you’re required to qualify

so he begins: “We found the bottom of stupid and dug us a hole.”

He says at the end he was runnin on empty.

He says even in the joint they didn’t have no trouble gettin product

and once when they couldn’t, why, a bunch of them shot up whatever, fools

that they all was -- even lighter fluid, skim off of boiled mayonnaise.

And then some died, or started floppin around “like chickens

after you axe them.” (He was raised a farm kid,

never mind the crude blue stupid tattoos).

Just like he was sayin,

the bottom of stupid. The bottom: that was it,

and the hole we dug below it. The hole we all dug.

“They did that partly because they loved the spike.

It’s crazy: they loved the drug first, true,

but also the spike.” There is stupid and stupid

of course, he says, because in some ways they wasn’t stupid.

Like they learnt how you could go to the rec room and when the screw

was noddin or readin or talkin to someone else

you yanked out a wire from the beat-ass piano.

Now if you could get a Walkman motor and a bottle cap,

you could put the motor in the cap and fill the cap with ink

and take that plastic tube from a ballpoint

and run the wire through it down in the ink. That was that,

your tattoo kit: start the motor, the wire’s your needle, slicker’n shit.

He has Truth on his left forearm for some reason.

He has 1% on his right.

He says Charlene’s on a buttock, but of course he doesn’t show us.

He says he don’t know what God is and truth is,

he don’t care: somehow or another he’s right

here with us, “And meantime a lot of them’s dead or crazy or still in stir --

so why me? Why any of us?” He thanks God.

He remembers how he read about the wise man’s knowledge

turnin out to be foolish. Read it in solitary (for the tattoos). In the hole.

And the fool’s foolishness the other way around.

He was both a wise-ass and a fool -- no high school, let alone college --

so if he has any wisdom he’s here to prove a fool can get it.

There’s a lot of appreciative laughing, but some of us

feel more than a little uncomfortable with the God stuff so we stay silent.

Some of us don’t really want him to read

what he reads, which is Psalm 28, including the part that says

O Lord my rock be not silent to me lest if thou be silent

I become like those who go down in the pit.

“He’s a Bible nut” someone whispers.

But then again we are all of us alive.

A lot of people aren’t. That mayonnaise stunt. The lighter fluid.

The time when one of us drove through the bridge

across the river and we hung till we got saved.

The time one of us came to in our bathroom

with the toilet seat all bashed to bits

in the mess of puke on the floor and we stood up and didn’t know ourselves

and fell again and stood up again

and the blood was like a brown mask on our face in the mirror.

We didn’t know our own face but we didn’t die.

Down in the pit. Down in the bottom of stupid.

“Someone, I don’t know what it would be...   or something,”

he claims -- “Something could hear me cry.”