I had this thought that I shouldn’t just post the link, that somehow that isn’t enough for a blog post. On the last blog post about a publicaton, I talked too much about how I wrote the poems. I preened a bit. Poets are the worst. The Byronic guy with flowing sleeves and a dashing way with anything that touches his hands (foils, women, forks, corkscrews, wooden tennis racquets) doesn’t exist in this body. The Byronic ego is there though. If I am at a dinner party and someone says that they are a poet, I run. If you are at a dinner party with me and I mention that I’m a poet, don’t run. I’m really a deep and fascinating guy as evidenced by the poems at the link below.
Most days nothing much happens as a poet. You go to work and you desperately try to stay awake in conference rooms as HR departments describe the exciting new shrinking benefits and you thank people for emails where they apologize for answering an email a week late with the note that they have sent it on to someone else who might know something about the topic. You eat hotdogs and then the news tells you that those hotdogs are going to kill you faster than you thought they would. You look out the windows and think, man, I should really be writing. But a boat crosses your window-size cut out of the Hudson River and the thought changes to why bother and maybe you muse about how if someone asked you to define poetry, you would have a confident sentence before it petered out into a kind of glum shrug.
But not yesterday.
Yesterday I got my contributor copies for Jelly Bucket 6. A deliciously large journal with a great illustration of a bird on the cover and an eight page color insert. Paging through it, I especially liked the short story by Lucian Childs titled, Letters from His Wife Regarding the Progress of Her Enlightenment. Oh, and I’ve got a poem in there, too. Did I mention that? The poem is about a woman I saw dancing in Ruby’s Olde Tyme Bar and Grill on the boardwalk at Coney Island after the Mermaid Day Parade, maybe fifteen years ago. . Here’s a link to the Jelly Bucket website with information on where you can purchase a copy.
Also, yesterday, the new issue of the After Happy Hour Review went live. I have two poems in this web journal.
Epistle 1: I decided to write letters to people in my past as poems that I would never send them or tell them about. I had high hopes of writing quite a few these. I wrote two. In poem hunting, if an idea or a way of thinking yields two poems, that’s pretty darn good.
Pastry Tong: This poem was conceived when I was under the temporary sway of a book by Ponge. A friend I don’t talk to anymore recommended him to me. This reminds me that I should write that friend a poem letter and not send it to him.
Here’s the wikipedia on Ponge, so you know everything, too:
He wrote poems about objects and he tried very hard to make the poems only about the objects. This is a doomed kind of writing, a bit of cooked science poetry. The personal, the universal, can’t be kept out. The first drafts just stuck to describing the pastry tongs and the back story of the speaker and the girl in the coffee house was just the faintest of shadows. A hint. Then at some point I just put a full on love poem on top of this abstract discussion of Pastry Tongs. I put it on like one puts a coat of paint over another older coat of paint. The speaker isn’t me, except for the attitude and the fact that I spend a lot of early mornings in coffee shops. The girl is equally as unreal. That’s why the poem works. The pastry tongs are real though. Here’s a link to the journal:
The Levelled Churchyard
O passenger, pray list and catch
Our sighs and piteous groans,
Half stifled in this jumbled patch
Of wrenched memorial stones!
We late-lamented, resting here,
Are mixed to human jam,
And each to each exclaims in fear,
“I know not which I am!”
‘The wicked people have annexed
The verses on the good;
A roaring drunkard sports the text
Teetotal Tommy should!
‘Where we are huddled none can trace,
And if our names remain,
They pave some path or porch or place
Where we have never lain!
‘Here’s not a modest maiden elf
But dreads the final trumpet,
Lest half of her should rise herself,
And half some sturdy strumpet!
‘From restorations of Thy fane,
From smoothings of Thy sward,
From zealous Churchman’s pick and plane,
Deliver us O lord! Amen!’
Here’s an early Thomas Hardy poem. The idea of the poem is that a part of a churchyard has been levelled by removing or moving headstones. The poem is not that clear except that some headstones are jumbled, presumably from being forced into a smaller area and some have been moved to out of the way places where there happens to be a little room. Hardy did some work as a church architect, so I imagine that he was part of renovations that did “level” some churchyards. Also, I imagine that he carried this idea for a poem around for a long time before he acted on it.
I’m not a scholar; I’m a poet. (Dammit, Jim.) When I read other poets it is with two minds. The first mind reads as anyone else would, for enjoyment, for that little pop, that twang of the heart that a good poem brings. I guess there are still innocent readers out there who just like poetry and don’t read it because they are trying to get a laurel to wear themselves. The second mind is a scavenger. That mind is looking for things to use. So what can a contemporary poet take from this old Hardy poem?
There is a balance in reading as a poet. Read none of your peers and you don’t have the same set of tools available. Read too much of your peers and all you can do is echo. You have nothing to bring then but your own personality which would be fine if you are incredibly charming or if you are halfway through drinking yourself to death. But if you are a boring old stick in the mud, you might have a problem. Read only the classics and you can’t help but become dated, espicially if you don’t read far enough back. I spent a lot of time with the poet’s of the fifties, Bishop and Lowell, for example. It ’s a style that is still valid but whenever I look at a new journal I am jealous of how much more poets are doing with lines, breaking and not breaking them, new shapes/ideas organizing poems, how much obscurity is used, how much more directness is used. How much more frank they can be with the rawness of youth.
I’m still nervous when the lines aren’t identical lengths.
One thing to look for in a much older poem is what we can’t use.
On the form, the ballad stanzas are fine. The rhymes chime reliably enough for the music to pull us along, no clunkers. Nice touch on the last rhyming pair, putting the amen after the rhyme of “sward” and “Lord.” There is enough rhythmic variation to keep us from falling asleep. It does what good form should, invisibility. We can still use this form if we have a compelling reason to sound like a song. This poem is not necessarily a place that I would go to sharpen my form.
In a vast and probably overly personal generalization, our poems seem to resist message. Seem. A favoring of some moment of emotional clarity or intensity is a message in and of it itself. This poem has more of a message than we are used to and he leads us to it harder than we are used to being led. Hardy doesn’t believe much in a God that takes an interest in our lifes or of the promise of any kind of afterlife. Some of his other poems make a case that it would almost be better to have an angry god than the indifferent one that he perceives. Might be refreshing now to get a message, especially if it wasn’t political. Maybe something about love or the lack thereof ladeled on thick.
Hardy makes a kind of collective speaker for the dead in the churchyard. That collective speaker is speaking to us collectively. It isn’t addressed to one person going through the churchyard. It seems a note or an inscription left for any passenger in the future. The collective speaker isn’t used that much in contemporary poetry. We strongly prefer the I. I strongly prefer the I. After that, the next fallback is to a omniscient third.
Speaking as a We was always a device but now it feels even more so like some grand rhetorical device. I was thinking that I couldn’t name a poem that uses this but then the words, “We jazz june,” popped into my head. The things we can’t use are really what we should try to use. Has poetry lost the ability to speak for the whole tribe at once? Probably. I think we can, as June Jordan does, speak for a smaller group we know intimately. Or we could speak for a ridiculously small and made up group, like the poor souls at this church.
Irony is also something that we generally shy away from. Irony needs the reader to get a message that the speaker in the poem doesn’t get. I’m referring to dramatic irony here. So it really has the same problem as message but with a layer of technique added to it. Hardy uses this device to lead us to his message. First, we get the great line about being mixed to human jam. Dark, funny. And you can see immediately how that would be a problem for any speaker. But the first thought after processing the humor and the funny idea of all the jams being mixed up, is what kind of “I” can something mixed to human jam have.
By the time, we get to the rhyme of trumpet and strumpet and the silliness of good jam ladies worried about being confused with immoral jam ladies, the dark thought comes to us, if it is silly for the dead to worry about, it might be silly for the living too. The identity crisis of the speaker is also that of the poet.
The part of me that used to write papers compells me to mention that the word, levelled, refers to the ground in the churchyard, but it also refers to a levelling morally and socially of the people buried and by extension all the members of the church. It could also be referring to death itself.
Maybe I like this poem because I’ve tried to write a few ghost poems- the ghosts that hang out in my apartment and another that imagined the street by street map of somebody’s personal ghost town. By the way, I don’t believe in ghosts. I just like the idea of them, hanging out, having opinions about our follies.
Another thing you can do with an old poem is try to imagine how it would be written today. With this poem, I could imagine a wild Dean Young treatment, with a long list of mixed-up fantastical ghosts blaming city hall. Or a wry Billy Collins treatment from the point of view of the church architect. The fourth stanza is already close to the quiet despair of a Phillip Larkin poem. Wait. Larkin goes too far back. He’s already in the jumbled cemetery.
Here’s a poem about a subway announcement. For a few years, the train skipped the Smith and Ninth Street stop. I heard this announcement every time I rode the train. Any connoisseur of the F-train will remember it.
If you like monkeys and rum, you might like this story.
Here’s a link to the BBC footage that inspired the story. The moral of this story is keep an eye on your booze.
Here’s a link to the Stoneboat and Pebblebrook Press blog. This is the oddest thing that I have gotten to brag about lately. I just won a lipogram contest. To read the poem and to learn what a lipogram is, follow the link.
You always wonder how much people will read you into whatever you write. This story is titled, Father’s Day. I feel the need to write this note because my father is nothing like the father in the story. He did teach me how to play baseball, and he went to my games but he didn’t display any of the other behaviors in the story. He didn’t and doesn’t drink excessively. At least not around me. We have been to Lookout Mountain. I highly recommend it unless you are afraid of Gnomes. But if you are afraid of Gnomes and want the ultimate place to face your fears, you can do it inside a cave and on a mountain top there. I’m deflecting here. The bartender is a composite of several women that I didn’t actually know. I have known stale pretzels in bars. The pretzels are based on actual pretzels. Rereading the story, I wish I had added some detail about whether they were the kind of pretzels that make a knot or whether they were straight. It makes a difference. They were knots, and they did have salt. Still deflecting. What do I share with this character? I do like whiskey. I’m not above drinking it from coffee cups. I did play some third base in little league. But the rest of it? Nothing like me. And if you do sniff out a resemblance, pretend that you don’t. Writers depend on the friends that read their work to employ that polite fiction. Otherwise, it would be madness to write at all.
Here’s the link: