Review: Grief Is the Thing With Feathers

crow

DAD

My day-to-day work, see, is reading manuscripts, so you can see what put me on to publishing–my day job. By night I read Ted Hughes, my favorite poet, particularly his crow poems. The conjunction of bright idea (day) and Ted’s crows (night) put me on to this novella in verse…kinda, sorta verse.

BOYS

We got the tough job. We had to suspend our disbelief and pretend our mum was dead, and we were just little ones. Dad was a bit of a stereotypical bumbler. You know. Male of the species. Looks cute at our age, looks pathetic at his, but we got by. With a special helper, that is.

CROW

In this book I play antagonist, trickster, goad, protector, therapist, and baby-sitter. I know because the inner flap tells me so. (Ted Hughes or no, crows aren’t all that clever.) Here I make KRAAH noises. No caws for concern. Strictly KRAAH. And I am as clever as a shaman, or would be if I knew what a shaman is. I’m a CROW, for godssake.

DAD

Sometimes I get a little tipsy with wine–OK, a lot–and pass out, but that sort of thing is cool if you have a crow in the wings.

CROW

Once he had a little missy over–you know, once he had observed a respectable amount of time grieving over his dead wife–and I got to mimic his noises after missy left. KRAAH!

DAD

What a smelly, oily voyeuristic nuisance! But he’s the book’s conceit, so I endured it.

BOYS

Boys will be boys. That’s all we had to do here. That and collect pity like Oliver collects alms. It was rather fun. We missed Mum, yes, but we had a wonderful time breaking rules and making a mess of the place. The crow looked the other way. Or said, “Carry-on, lads” like a proud Mary Poppins.

CROW

I allowed Sylvia Plath to be mentioned a few times, but I have my limits. Beyond that, only TED talk. Clever as hell. Unique. Not that wonderful, writing-wise, but different, and difference can take you a long way in the publishing world of Stepford novels. And Stepford poetry. Plus, it was Hughes’ idea, really.

DAD

I’m a likable guy.

CROW

“Krickle krackle, hop sniff and tackle, in with the bins, singing the hymns.” That’s one of my lines of poetry. You must admit it’s wonderful, mustn’t you?

DAD

I like the Russians and James Joyce. I read lots of books and was quiet growing up. I sound a lot like a Goodreads prototype, really, which is why my book is so appealing. Also, there’s that appeal to pity thing. So don’t start with the logical fallacies, will you? I have a crow and I’m not afraid to use it.

CROW

A fast read, gentle readers. And amusing. With some decent lines. And a wonderful conceit that builds on another poet’s wonderful conceit, which stars my favorite conceit! Me! Playing Grief personified (black, get it?)! With feathers! How could I not answer the casting call?

BOYS

We think we heard Dad say you should rent it at the library vs. buy it, but the crow said KRAAH really loudly so it wasn’t clear. Crows know things. About royalties, even.

CROW

Buy it. Everybody loves crows. And royalties. And the little guy. And widowers with two devilishly innocent boys. It’s as good as a puppy, methinks. Do you suppose I’d waste my time inside a book otherwise? Max Porter’s Grief Is the Thing with Feathers is recommended! Even for non-poets (of which there are a few, I hear). KRAAH!

If Humans Were Formulas…

formula

Not being of scientific or mathematical mind, I’ve never thought of humans in terms of a formula. Imagine my surprise, then, when I poked around Lin Yutang’s tome, The Importance of Living, and discovered this quixotic mix:

Reality – Dreams = Animal Being

Reality + Dreams = A Heart-Ache (usually called Idealism)

Reality + Humor = Realism (also called Conservatism)

Dreams – Humor = Fanaticism

Dreams + Humor = Fantasy

Reality + Dreams + Humor = Wisdom

Lin Yutang himself admitted that these formulas are “pseudo-scientific” and that he distrusts, to a degree, “all dead and mechanical formulas for expressing anything connected with human affairs or human personalities.”

And yet, as writers know full well, abstractions, when given expression through the medium of concrete objects and human character, can lead to poetry. Thinking in this manner, a poet might be moved to find ways to write, for instance, about heartache.

As proof, let’s look at helpful formula #2. Said poet might begin by mixing equal parts reality (concrete images) with the abstraction of a dream (human desire). The contrasts, written with an alchemist’s precision, could conjure poetry to be reckoned with–the type of poem readers read and react to with, “Yes! That’s it, precisely! A wistful, poignant moment captured by an actual moment in time I can identify with!”

The sixth formula might be the most challenging of all. Here the “show” vs. “tell” takes the form of three formidable objects being juggled at once. A slice of life (reality) teamed with mankind’s addiction for dreams, leavened with the spice of wry humor that expands the vision (and don’t you just love the warm smell of vision?).

Easier said than done? Surely! But what fun is writing without a challenge?

And look at formula #4! Does it not remind you of our world’s 1930s-style shift to right-wing governments and brash demagogues? I leave t to political writers who go where angels fear to tread by attempting political poems that don’t come off as didactic and sanctimonious. A good resistance poem is a rare wonder, and sometimes the best approach is to objectively describe the humorless dreamers of a past that never existed and leave it at that.

Meaning? I’m no fan of formulas, but I can see how Lin Yutang’s pseudo-scientific equations might serve as interesting prompts, a jumping-off point into a refreshing quarry pool of wonderful things.

The New Muses of Poetry

muses

Ancient times, when I was a kid running through Greek forests, brought us nine (a magical number, like three and seven) muses with nine ungodly names:

  • Calliope (the muse of epic poetry and eloquence)
  • Clio (the muse of history)
  • Erato (the muse of love poetry and mimicry)
  • Euterpe (the muse of music)
  • Melpomene (the muse of tragedy)
  • Polyhymnia (the muse of sacred poetry and religious dance)
  • Terpsichore (the muse of dance and lyric poetry)
  • Thalia (the muse of comedy and idyllic poetry)
  • Urania (the muse of astronomy)

Try remembering THOSE names. Me, I insist they wear those “Hi, My Name Is…” stickers whenever they show up for a party. And notice how many of them, among other specialties, cover forms of poetry: epic, love, sacred, lyric, and idyllic. Amusing, isn’t it? At least to poets, who are easily amused.

The problem is, these ancient Greek muses are dated, some even married. We need new blood, which is why we now have new, updated muses of poetry. And just in time, too. Terpsichore just wasn’t cutting it for me (though she does cut a mean rug when showing her moves on the dance floor).

If you want to write poetry today, then, invoke these:

  • Eutubia (the muse of viral poetry)
  • Amie (the muse of friends on Facebook who actually read your uploads)
  • Limerickia (the muse of bad poetry in public bathroom stalls)
  • Haikudzu (the muse of 17-syllable poetry in elementary classrooms)
  • Please Refrainia (the muse of bad lyrics in really bad pop music)
  • Cocoa Puffrina (the muse of backs-of-cereal-box copy)
  • Onlineia (the muse of online social network “writing”)
  • Textichore (the muse of dancing thumbs and cellphone addiction)
  • Snapia and Chatia (the twin muses of the ephemeral and the worthless)

Invoke at your own risk!

What? I Can’t Write About This?

dogfood

One of the most enjoyable aspects of publishing a first book of poetry is–what else?–readers, but less obviously, it’s readers’ reactions to poems.

Here’s irony. Reading a lot about poetry, I often come across comments from experts, critics, and even other poets, spreading rumors like, “When writing poetry, you should never write about nature because it’s hackneyed. And certainly not love. Too Hallmark. And dogs? You must be crazy. Death? Only if you want to send your readers running while waving their arms over how depressing a poet you are.”

Yeah. Something to that effect. And then, just when I begin to second guess my work, readers of my book will tell me some of their favorite poems from are ones about nature, love, death, and DOGS.

The moral of this story is clear. As a poet, you write what you want to write. If it moves you or warms up your Muse’s harp strings, play it loud and proud! The naysayers apparently haven’t read Ecclesiastes about nothing being new under the sun. The secret is taking what’s always been there and finding personal magic in it. If it’s how the sun rays hit the boulders and cast their shadows, so be it.

Here’s a poem with strange inspiration, a combination of quotidian and quirky. It notes the way my dog always leaves a single nugget of dog food in his bowl each morning. It’s from my book, The Indifferent World, and it breaks the experts’ rules. So don’t tell the poetry police, will you?

“Dog Religion”
by Ken Craft

Each morning he rises and bows
before me–parable of humility,
maw yawning, paws splaying.

The hollow rattle of dry meal
raining on his aluminum bowl
pops his ears. Every day,
novelty in the ritual of repetition;
every day, the Pavlovian ear perk.
Like heartbeats and bad breath,
autonomous tail and tongue.
Just so.

Waiting for me
to move, he approaches the orb
demurely, noses in, crunches the bland
and the brown. That lovable greed.
Those stained, pacifist teeth.

He feeds, license and rabies tag
keeping time at bowl’s edge. And always,
in the end, one dry kibble
is left in a bowl cirrus-streaked
with spit: his offering
to the food gods, his prayer
answered each miraculous day.

— from The Indifferent World by Ken Craft, copyright 2016, Future Cycle Press

Planes, Trains, and Poems

vietnam

Sometimes poems do the jobs of planes, trains, and automobiles by taking us places we’ve never been, then giving us a taste (a sight, a smell, a sound, a touch) of what that location is like.

This is what happened for me in one of the poems included in Jane Hirshfield’s Ten Windows. It’s called “Facing It,” a poem where Yusef Kanunyakaa has me standing in front of a memorial I’ve never seen: The Vietnam Veterans Memorial.

Notice the images, how some the figurative language mirrors what many of these names went through in that faraway land, that faraway folly instigated by old men back home. This is but one thing that poetry does–and does well.

Facing It by Yusef Kanunyakaa

My black face fades,
hiding inside the black granite.
I said I wouldn't,
dammit: No tears.
I'm stone. I'm flesh.
My clouded reflection eyes me
like a bird of prey, the profile of night
slanted against morning. I turn
this way--the stone lets me go.
I turn that way--I'm inside
the Vietnam Veterans Memorial
again, depending on the light
to make a difference.
I go down the 58,022 names,
half-expecting to find
my own in letters like smoke.
I touch the name Andrew Johnson;
I see the booby trap's white flash.
Names shimmer on a woman's blouse
but when she walks away
the names stay on the wall.
Brushstrokes flash, a red bird's
wings cutting across my stare.
The sky. A plane in the sky.
A white vet's image floats
closer to me, then his pale eyes
look through mine. I'm a window.
He's lost his right arm
inside the stone. In the black mirror
a woman's trying to erase names:
No, she's brushing a boy's hair.

From Dien Cai Dau by Yusef Komunyakaa. Copyright © 1988 by Yusef Komunyakaa.

Jane Hirshfield as Scheherazade

hirshfield

In education, lectures are vilified with good reason. They are boring. They are so much bombast. They are inflicted by vainglorious pontificators on passive victims who must endure or find ways to daydream through it all.

What happens, though, when a speaker is so knowledgeable, silver-tongued, and interesting that the restless audience (or reader) begins to sit up and pay attention like the Sultan before Scheherazade? That’s what happens when I read a collection of Jane Hirshfield essays on poetry, last year Nine Gates: Entering the Mind of Poetry and these past few days Ten Windows: How Great Poems Transform the World.

The poetic title points to the ten essays, here as chapters titled “Kingfishers Catching Fire: Looking with Poetry’s Eyes,” “Language Wakes Up in the Morning: On Poetry’s Speaking,” “Seeing Through Words: An Introduction to Basho, Haiku, and the Suppleness of Image,” “Thoreau’s Hound: Poetry and the Hidden,” “Uncarryable Remainders: Poetry and Uncertainty,” “Close Reading: Windows,” “Poetry and the Constellation of Surprise,” “What Is American in Modern America Poetry: a Brief Primer with Poems,” “Poetry, Transformation, and the Column of Tears,” and “Strange Reaches, Impossibility, and Big Hidden Drawers: Poetry and Paradox.”

As you can see, Hirshfield covers a lot of poetic turf in this collection, my favorite being the lengthy section on the enigmatic but interesting 17th-century haiku master, Basho. Buddhism is a Hirshfield specialty, and if anyone can rescue haiku from American elementary school classrooms (where it is being held for ransom), raising them to the adult art form they were and still are, it’s Jane Hirshfield.

Equally compelling is the essay with the intriguing title “Thoreau’s Hound.” As a fan of Henry David Thoreau (my poetry collection features as an epigraph his famous line from Walden, “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation”), I wondered where this would doggone lead.

Turns out, the essay is based on another Thoreau line from Walden: “I long ago lost a hound, a bay horse, and a turtle dove, and am still on their trail. Many are the travelers I have spoken to concerning them, describing their tracks and what calls they answered to. I have met one or two who had heard the hound, and the tramp of the horse, and even seen the dove disappear behind a cloud, and they seemed as anxious to recover them as if they had lost them themselves.”

Hirshfield pairs this with a Ralph Waldo Emerson quote: “Sleep lingers all our lifetime about our eyes, as night hovers all day in the boughs of the fir tree.”

The point? Mankind, as Jane Hirshfield points out, “wants to know,” yet there is an equal attraction to mystery, to not knowing, to the chase and the journeys such pursuits entail. This, too, is a province of poetry, which is forever looking at the intangibles of mystery and trying on various concrete forms. With metaphor and imagery comes the hunt for le mot juste, the baying of hounds on the scent, the nearness of capture… and  yet, and yet, despite not finding our quarry, we are often grateful for the closeness, the magical proximity, we enjoy when reading a good poem.

Perhaps the most satisfying aspect of Hirshfield’s essay collections is the number of poems, both complete and excerpts, she introduces as concrete examples of her abstract points. Among these I find new poets, new poems, new possibilities to explore. One of my favorites in this book was an excerpt from Jack Gilbert’s “Going Wrong.” I found one line–about the eyes of dying fish, of all things–that led me to the entire poem online. I leave it for you to enjoy. The line “the grand rooms fading from their flat eyes” is worth the price of admission alone. Only a poet could conceive of the sea as “grand rooms” captured in the eyes of the fish who live there.

GOING WRONG

by Jack Gilbert

The fish are dreadful. They are brought up
the mountain in the dawn most days, beautiful
and alien and cold from night under the sea,
the grand rooms fading from their flat eyes,
Soft machinery of the dark, the man thinks,
washing them. “What can you know of my machinery!”
demands the Lord. Sure, the man says quietly
and cuts into them, laying back the dozen struts,
getting to the muck of something terrible.
The Lord insists: “You are the one who chooses
to live this way. I build cities where things
are human. I make Tuscany and you go to live
with rocks and silence.”  The man washes away
the blood and arranges the fish on a big plate.
Starts the onions in the hot olive oil and puts
in peppers. “You have lived all year without women.”
He takes out everything and puts in the fish.
“No one knows where you are. People forget you.
You are vain and stubborn.” The man slices
tomatoes and lemons. Takes out the fish
and scrambles eggs. I am not stubborn, he thinks,
laying all of it on the table in the courtyard
full of early sun, shadows of swallows flying
on the food. Not stubborn, just greedy.

from The Great Fires: Poems 1982-1992 (Knopf, 1994)

One Box, Two Box, Mailbox, Inbox

mailbox

Once upon a time addictions were so innocent, no one thought to call them addictions. Yes, children. We would sit down for a leisurely hour or so and write long letters to friends and family, tri-fold the lined paper into a business envelope, affix a first-class (styling!) stamp, and away she went.

The reward for this long-attention span work? Every day we would check the raised red flag on the mailbox to see if it had been lowered by the friendly postman (what do dogs know?). Walking to that mailbox was, for writers who love to read (but what else?), the highlight of the day.

Maybe a long missive would be harbored in that tiny tunnel of tin darkness. If so, we’d find the right spot, grab the right drink, and enjoy another long-attention span activity: reading and re-reading a long letter from a fellow enthusiast of the screed trade.

Such, such were the days! And, as we became writers (read: supporters of the USPS) who constantly sent out submissions with self-addressed stamped envelopes (SASEs), the trips to the mailbox became all the more thrilling. Who would’ve ever believed that waiting for rejection would be such a high for young writers? But it was so!

Now we’ve supposedly increased the odds of feel-good hits via the mailbox stand-in, the e-mail inbox. Yes sirree Bob, writers can now get rejected at any hour of the day! And each time we do, we give a Whitmanesque yawp, saying, “Yes! I am a writer!” That’s what rejections do. Give us credentials. But only if aided by the element of surprise. What would that be? Acceptance. Publication. It happens. And it happens more and more with time and practice, increasing a writer’s inbox addiction (sigh).

The moral of this tale? For me, it’s this: I can pat myself on the back all I want for avoiding the ubiquitous and ridiculous spectacle of e-mail and, worse still, texting addiction by not owning a cellphone, but the truth is, as a writer, I’ve had to face the technological music of addiction, too. Only the hardcore writing warriors manage to get so lost in their work that they don’t worry about the marketing aspects of the trade by checking that secret inbox.

One box, two box, mailbox, inbox. It’s all one. Keep your checks to a concrete number a day (the magic number three, say) and count that as a victory. The rest of the time? Though rejections and acceptances may be washing ashore, writers have work to do, and it doesn’t fare so well with constant interruption.

As Aristotle said too many times, “I write, therefore I am… boxes notwithstanding.”

The Pronoun “I” and Poetry

i

Two cheers for the pronoun “I” in poetry! OK. One cheer, maybe? The upstanding pronoun has been under attack in some quarters because it seems to make poetry less universal to the reader… more of a diary delight exercise. But is it, really?

First off, let’s clear the air about “I” and all its cousins. Why the harsh reception? It’s easy to understand if you try this simple exercise. Pick a person any person (but especially a PUBLISHED person) online and follow his/her social media posts. Track how many times he/she says “I,” “me,” “my,” “mine,” and “myself.” Buy extra paper for the hash marks. Chances are, you’re going to need it.

People (especially PUBLISHED people peddling their wares, which might be construed as an extension of themselves) self-promote both consciously and unconsciously. They studiously pretend not to market themselves as they do just that. I should know. I’ve taken the class (and failed, dropping out of the University of Facebook, but that’s another story).

But what’s terribly wrong when the “I’s” have it in poetry? Is it that difficult to identify with the author if it’s all about her? In prose, the opposite is true. First-person point of view, a standard from way back, is considered the most intimate, hail-fellow-well-met of all the POV’s and the surest ticket to winning readers over. In fact, after a while, the readers adopt the “I” as themselves. Writer becomes reader seamlessly!

So why should poetry be any different than prose? Is it because first-person poem are so overwhelmingly popular? Is it the hipster syndrome, wherein you rebel against anything the masses take to?

You’ve got me. My philosophy on poetry is big tent. Want the first-person point of view early and often? Be my guest. How about the present tense? If it works and makes your words more immediate, you have my blessing. A form poem? Very mathematical of you in a poetic way, but it’s a free country. I’ll be cheering from the free verse sidelines!

Maybe it’s because I occasionally blog, an exercise in solipsism if ever there was one. Each of these posts is riddled with the pronoun “I.” Were I to count them in this entry, for instance, I wouldn’t be surprised if there were dozens.

That said, nothing surprises me anymore, including criticism of poor, innocent pronouns with simple backgrounds. In poetry, a prodigal “I” is cool. In self-promotion, even studiously undercover? Less so, but we all have to make a living–or, as they say in poetry circles, NOT make one.

Poems That Stick

crow

For many decades, I was a plainclothes reader of poetry. I took a course at university, like people do, but wasn’t terribly impressed. Still, impressions were made. A few poems, for reasons quirky to me, stuck. That is, I remembered certain lines and, like stubborn lint that’s taken up residence in wool, they refused to give. Strands of them took up permanent residency in those out-of-the-way lobes of my brain.

One “sticker” was some poem a guy wrote about his cat, Jeoffrey. Perhaps it was the poem. Perhaps it was the idea that a poet would riff for an entire poem on his cat. And I’m a dog guy, so don’t get it in your head that I like the poem because I watch inane youtube videos about kitties. This poem transcends all that silliness.

The poem in question? “For I Will Consider My Cat Jeoffrey” by Christopher “Really” Smart, a guy who spent seven years in an insane asylum (while Jeoffrey ran affairs back home, no doubt). A taste (brace yourself for a strong dose of anaphora):

For I will consider my Cat Jeoffry. 
For he is the servant of the Living God duly and daily serving him.
For at the first glance of the glory of God in the East he worships in his way.
For this is done by wreathing his body seven times round with elegant quickness.
For then he leaps up to catch the musk, which is the blessing of God upon his prayer.
For he rolls upon prank to work it in.
For having done duty and received blessing he begins to consider himself.
For this he performs in ten degrees.
For first he looks upon his forepaws to see if they are clean.
For secondly he kicks up behind to clear away there.
For thirdly he works it upon stretch with the forepaws extended.
For fourthly he sharpens his paws by wood.
For fifthly he washes himself.
For sixthly he rolls upon wash.
For seventhly he fleas himself, that he may not be interrupted upon the beat.
For eighthly he rubs himself against a post.
For ninthly he looks up for his instructions.
For tenthly he goes in quest of food.
For having consider’d God and himself he will consider his neighbour.
For if he meets another cat he will kiss her in kindness.
For when he takes his prey he plays with it to give it a chance.
For one mouse in seven escapes by his dallying.
For when his day’s work is done his business more properly begins.
For he keeps the Lord’s watch in the night against the adversary.
For he counteracts the powers of darkness by his electrical skin and glaring eyes.
For he counteracts the Devil, who is death, by brisking about the life.
For in his morning orisons he loves the sun and the sun loves him.
For he is of the tribe of Tiger.
For the Cherub Cat is a term of the Angel Tiger.
For he has the subtlety and hissing of a serpent, which in goodness he suppresses.
For he will not do destruction, if he is well-fed, neither will he spit without provocation.
For he purrs in thankfulness, when God tells him he’s a good Cat.
For he is an instrument for the children to learn benevolence upon.
For every house is incomplete without him and a blessing is lacking in the spirit.
For the Lord commanded Moses concerning the cats at the departure of the Children of Israel from Egypt.
For every family had one cat at least in the bag.
For the English Cats are the best in Europe.
For he is the cleanest in the use of his forepaws of any quadruped.
For the dexterity of his defence is an instance of the love of God to him exceedingly.
For he is the quickest to his mark of any creature.
For he is tenacious of his point.
For he is a mixture of gravity and waggery.
For he knows that God is his Saviour.
For there is nothing sweeter than his peace when at rest.
For there is nothing brisker than his life when in motion.
For he is of the Lord’s poor and so indeed is he called by benevolence perpetually–Poor Jeoffry! poor Jeoffry! the rat has bit thy throat.
For I bless the name of the Lord Jesus that Jeoffry is better.
For the divine spirit comes about his body to sustain it in complete cat.
For his tongue is exceeding pure so that it has in purity what it wants in music.
For he is docile and can learn certain things.
For he can set up with gravity which is patience upon approbation.
For he can fetch and carry, which is patience in employment.
For he can jump over a stick which is patience upon proof positive.
For he can spraggle upon waggle at the word of command.
For he can jump from an eminence into his master’s bosom.
For he can catch the cork and toss it again.
For he is hated by the hypocrite and miser.
For the former is afraid of detection.
For the latter refuses the charge.
For he camels his back to bear the first notion of business.
For he is good to think on, if a man would express himself neatly.
For he made a great figure in Egypt for his signal services.
For he killed the Ichneumon-rat very pernicious by land.
For his ears are so acute that they sting again.
For from this proceeds the passing quickness of his attention.
For by stroking of him I have found out electricity.
For I perceived God’s light about him both wax and fire.
For the Electrical fire is the spiritual substance, which God sends from heaven to sustain the bodies both of man and beast.
For God has blessed him in the variety of his movements.
For, tho he cannot fly, he is an excellent clamberer.
For his motions upon the face of the earth are more than any other quadruped.
For he can tread to all the measures upon the music.
For he can swim for life.
For he can creep. 

To qualify as a “stick” poem, the poem doesn’t have to be remembered whole hog. Oh, no. One line will do. The best example is a two-word line from a poem that I frequently mutter as I look up at raucous crows in the sky, on tree limbs, or on the peak of the roof. It is, simply, “Pass, crow.” The words rattle like two marbles in the empty cup of my mind every time I see my dark-feathered friends.

And what a lovely conceit! I mean, the very thought of man commanding crow! If crows appear to laugh, their heads bobbing with due caws, this final line from this poem is the reason. Ted Hughes, a crow specialist, is the deluded poet:

“Examination at the Womb-Door”

Who owns those scrawny little feet?    Death.
Who owns this bristly scorched-looking face?    Death.
Who owns these still-working lungs?    Death.
Who owns this utility coat of muscles?    Death.
Who owns these unspeakable guts?    Death.
Who owns these questionable brains?    Death.
All this messy blood?    Death.
These minimum-efficiency eyes?    Death.
This wicked little tongue?    Death.
This occasional wakefulness?    Death.

Given, stolen, or held pending trial?
Held.

Who owns the whole rainy, stony earth?    Death.
Who owns all of space?    Death.

Who is stronger than hope?    Death.
Who is stronger than the will?    Death.
Stronger than love?    Death.
Stronger than life?    Death.

But who is stronger than Death?
                          Me, evidently.
Pass, Crow.

Of course, you cannot be a registered reader of American poetry if you don’t have some Frost covering the frozen grass of your mind. For me, it’s two lines: “Whose woods these are I think I know” (though, like Frost, I don’t really) and “Two roads diverged in a yellow wood.”

If the roads had diverged in a red wood, it wouldn’t work as well. Yes, it’d be a nod to Frost’s birth state of California, but memorable? No. It may be read multiple times, but it just wouldn’t stick.

I should know. I’ve been going left at every fork in a yellow wood I’ve come across. Explains a lot, doesn’t it?

Why Poetry? Better Still: Why Not?

While the sale of poetry books continues to languish and the number of readers who love reading (asterisk: only not poetry books) continues to skyrocket, there’s still a healthy cottage industry in writing not poetry but ABOUT poetry. Specifically its death. Or long-term prognosis. Or philosophical place in the world (hint: look low).

Among that burgeoning genre, we can add Daniel Halpern’s New York Times column, “A Few Questions for Poetry,” wherein he puts poor poetry in the defendant’s box and grills it much like sourdough bread and cheese (mmm, can we add a slice of pickle?).

The column includes poets attempting to answer “Why poetry?” also known as the mystery of life. “Now pinch hitting for poetry, which ironically cannot speak for itself, number 12, Louise Glück!” Cheer from the crowd. All nineteen of it.

Louise finds consolation in this philosophy: No one buys poetry books much, but at least, when they do, they tend to keep them much longer than, say, a Scott Turow best seller. Feeling better, everyone?

Richard Ford, who is not a poet but somehow crashes the gates here, probably because he responded to Halpern’s query, which 32 otherwise occupied poets did not, overthinks things and claims “Why poetry?” is a bad question. To prove it, he comes up with a much better (just ask him) one: “What is the nature of experience, and especially the experience of using language, that calls poetic utterance into existence? What is there about experience that’s unutterable?”

Huh? Think I’ll write a poem rather than figure that one out.

In a rather lazy gesture, Halpern then gives us an Emily Dickinson response (and I’m almost sure this isn’t cut and paste from an e-mail). You know. The famous one about knowing it’s poetry when you feel like the top of your head has been taken off. To which I would ask the Amherst eccentric: How does anyone know what THAT feels like? And wouldn’t it make you feel more like Frankenstein’s monster than a reader in a state of poetic euphoria (and I don’t mean New Jersey)?

The most prosaic response comes from our Hartford insurance salesman by day, poet by night (uniform in the actuarial tables file cabinet), Wallace Stevens: “…to help people live their lives.”

Only I ask you: Have you ever read a Wallace Stevens poem and felt like it helped you to live your life? I mean, now that I’ve read “The Emperor of Ice Cream,” I can get on with my day, knowing exactly what to do if I find the night help or a co-worker has stolen Christmas candy from my desk drawer again?

Which brings us to this question: “Why columns about why poetry?”

Oh, yeah. Because they sell and some people even read them. Unlike poetry.