Where Pretentious Poetry Need Not Apply

budbill

It’s always a good day when you stumble upon a book of poetry you love, a day that introduces you to a new poet who has written plenty of other books you can now explore, a day that time forgets but you won’t soon because, well, it was so fun being lost in the thicket of its hours and minutes.

Such was yesterday morning when I waded into David Budbill’s Moment to Moment: Poems of a Mountain Recluse. Budbill, a Vermont poet, appeals to me for a few reasons. Let me enumerate a few:

  • His poems frequently allude to the ancient poets of China and Japan.
  • His poems are grounded in nature. There’s a Walden-esque air to his work, though he’d much prefer I say a T’ang Dynasty air to his work, maybe.
  • His poems can be self-deprecating.
  • His poems have a sense of humor.
  • His poetry comes alive on the page due to its strong sense of voice.
  • He pulls no punches when it comes to the Poohbahs of Poetry, people who write obscure poetry, the New Yorker type poets and, of course, the ubiquitous, inbred MFA-machine types.
  • His poems are simple, much like me.

Good enough reason to celebrate a day and a poet, to not only line up more Budbill books to read, but seek more of the humble poetry he admires from a distant Chinese and Japanese past. When books lead to books, a bibliophile is a happy being!

Here is a taste of Budbill’s straightforward poems, most of them short, many of them demonstrating traits shared above:

“When I Came to  Judevine Mountain”

When I came to Judevine Mountain
I thought
all my troubles would cease,
but I brought
books and papers–my ambition–
so now, still,
all I know is grief.

“In the Ancient Tradition”

I live within the ancient tradition:
the poet as mountain recluse,
withdrawn and hidden,
a life of genteel poverty,
a quiet life of meditation,

which gives me lots of time
to gnash my teeth and worry over
how I want to be known and read
by everyone and have admirers
everywhere and lots of money!

“Like the Clouds”

Our lives are like the clouds.

We come from out of nowhere,
take some shape a little while,
then disappear.

No wonder we all want
money, power, prestige,
immortality from poetry.

“The Three Goals”

The first goal is to see the thing itself
in and for itself, to see it simply and clearly
for what it is.

No symbolism, please.

The second goal is to see each individual thing
as unified, as one, with all the other
ten thousand things.

In this regard, a little wine helps a lot.

The third goal is to grasp the first and second goals,
to see the universal and the particular,
simultaneously.

Regarding this one, call me when you get it.

“Another Lie”

This silence, this emptiness,
this freedom to listen and dream
are all I’ve ever wanted.

And if that were true my
ambition, bitterness, and envy
would have left me years ago.

“Be Glad”

Why become wise

when you can be stupid?

Why become sophisticated

when you can be simple and original?

If you are artless and ordinary,

the literati, who recognize only

artifice and self-consciousness,

will ignore you.

Be glad with just a cup of tea,

a bird’s song,

a small book of plain poems,

and your anonymity.

“Dilemma”

I want to be

famous

so I can be

humble

about being

famous.

What good is my

humility

when I am

stuck

in this

obscurity?

“The Cycle of the Seasons”

The cycle of the seasons is to teach us to prepare

for our own deaths.

We get to practice every year, especially in the fall.

I’ve had fifty-eight practice sessions now.

But I’m not getting anywhere.

I can’t seem to get it.

The more I practice, the older I get,

the less I want to die.

“An Age of Academic Mandarins”

This is an age of academic mandarins
who manufacture secret vocabularies
so they can keep their verses to themselves
and away from ordinary people
who could never understand the erudition
of their obtuse allusions, or the quirky twists
of their self-indulgent minds.

Ah, Po Chü-i, how they would laugh at you,
My Friend, standing there in your kitchen
testing your poem on your illiterate cook to see
if it is plain enough so that she and people like her
will be able to comprehend what you have to say.

And when she says she doesn’t know what you
are talking about, you go back to your study
to make it plainer, more easily accessible–
pure, clean, simple: so anyone can understand.

–all poems from Moment to Moment: Poems of a Mountain Recluse by David Budbill, Copper Canyon Press, 1999.

The Ernest Hemingway of Contemporary Poets

bilgere

George Bilgere is the Ernest Hemingway of contemporary of poets. By that I don’t mean he shoots innocent lions in his free time or drinks like a marlin. I mean he makes writing look effortless. The complex simplicity of his work inspires in us a most valuable sentiment: the good old “I can do that, too!” sentiment.

It’s great inspiration, this sentiment. And at least it gets you started. But then you realize it is not as simple as it seems. You start writing a poem, all psyched and sure you’re musing with the best of them, and then things go haywire. By line four. Before you even turn the bend of stanza one. How does he do it, you wonder?

Let’s sample some of his work and see for ourselves. The first, “Haywire,” gives us a distant, pre-industrial past through the eyes of a very old relative who happens to live in some back room of a childhood friend’s house. The distant past is served up as an agrarian utopia of sorts. Something that looks awfully good, even reading it today. OK, given the fraught political situation in America, especially reading it today.

“Haywire” by George Bilgere

When I was a kid,
there was always someone old
living with my friends,
a small, gray person
from another century
who stayed in a back room
with a Bible and a bed with silver rails.

They were from a time before the time
the world just plain went haywire,

and even though nothing
made sense to them anymore,
they’d gotten used to it,
and walked around smiling vaguely
at the aliens ruining the galaxy
on the color console television,

or the British invasion
growing from the sides of our heads
in little transistorized boxes.

In the front room, by the light of tv,
we were just starting to get stoned,
and the girls were helping us
help them out of their jeans,

while in the back room
someone very tired
closed her eyes and watched
a wheat field where a boy
whose name she can’t remember
is walking down a dusty road.

No sound
but the sound of crickets.
No satellites,
Or even headlights in the distance yet.

The next poem out-Billies Billy Collins. We see the poet in some European setting–some Masterpiece Theatre set from the BBC–doing what he shouldn’t be doing: a whole lot of nothing. Can anything win our hearts faster? We are all complicit. Hark:

“Once Again I Fail to Read an Important Novel” by George Bilgere

Instead, we sit together beside the fountain,
the important novel and I.

We are having coffee together
in that quiet first hour of the morning,
respecting each other’s silences
in the shadow of an important old building
in this small but significant European city.

All the characters can relax.
I’m giving them the day off.
For once they can forget about their problems—
desire, betrayal, the fatal denouement—
and just sit peacefully beside me.

In the afternoon,
at lunch near the cathedral,
and in the evening, after my lonely,
historical walk along the promenade,

the men and women, the children
and even the dogs
in the important, complicated novel
have nothing to fear from me.

We will sit quietly at the table
with a glass of cool red wine
and listen to the pigeons
questioning each other in the ancient corridors.

Our final sample shows that Bilgere, a playful and casual poet, can also play the poignant card when he needs to. I like that in a poet. It’s fine to be good at something, but it’s finer to prove that your portfolio is diversified. I can think of no better example than the following:

“The White Museum” by George Bilgere

My aunt was an organ donor
and so, the day she died,
her organs were harvested
for medical science.
I suppose there must be people
who list, under “Occupation,”
“Organ Harvester,” people for whom
it is always harvest season,
each death bringing its bounty.
They spend their days
loading wagonloads of kidneys,
whole cornucopias of corneas,
burlap sacks groaning with hearts and lungs
and the pale green sprouts of gall bladders,
and even, from time to time,
the weighty cauliflower of a brain.

And perhaps today,
as I sit in this café, watching the snow
and thinking about my aunt,
a young medical student somewhere
is moving through the white museum
of her brain, making his way slowly
from one great room to the next.
Here is the gallery of her girlhood,
with that great canvas depicting her father
holding her on his lap in the backyard
of their bungalow in St. Louis.
And here is a sketch of her
the summer after her mother died,
walking down a street in Berlin
when the broken city was itself
a museum. And here
is a small, vivid oil of the two of us
sitting in a café in London
arguing over the work of Constable
or Turner, or Francis Bacon
after a visit to the Tate.

I want you to know, as you sit there
with your microscope and your slides,
there’s no need to be reverent before these images.
That’s the last thing she would have wanted.
But do be respectful. Speak quietly.
No flash photography. Tell your friends
you saw something beautiful.

If you haven’t sampled this Ohio poet’s work, give him a go. Not only will it be an enjoyable read, it will inspire you to write. Because, after all, it’s easy. You can do it, too*!

(*Results may vary.)

Ideal Conditions for Writing? Hear Ye, Hear Ye!

What are ideal conditions for writing? Far be it for me to offer advice, but since you didn’t ask, I’ll relent.

First of all, it is a myth that poetry, unlike it’s more verbose cousins (novels, plays, essays) is best written on paper. Sure, many famous poets wax poetic (what else?) about blue ink on long yellow legal pad, but me, I find the blizzard-like beauty of Word-.docx white just as enticing. Why? To preserve erasers. Nothing gets revised as many ways to Sunday as a poem suffering birthing pains. The confetti of eraser sheddings gets bothersome.

Writing position? As the Poles say, in their poetic way, on your dupa. (If you’re Polish and notice a misspelling, please forgive me.) I love Mark Twain, but never understood his elderly habit of writing in bed. Isn’t there a famous blues song, after all, called “Don’t Write in Bed”? (Ear worm works its way into my cochlea.)

Writing atmosphere? We cannot control the high and low pressure systems the Weather Gods (and their inept interpreters — read: meteorologists — on TV) send our way, but we can adjust ambience. For me, poetry is best written to classical music. Reason? The aforementioned ear worm. It doesn’t turn and do its night crawl when the music lacks lyrics.

Music with lyrics is like someone reading over your shoulder. Or worse, someone whispering another man’s poem in your ear while you are trying to compose your own. Have you ever tried to recall a song while another is playing? It puts the caco- in cacophony, let me tell you.

Some of my favorites? I love the Estonian wonder, Arvo Pärt, and his tintinnabulation. Kind of like Poe’s bells, bells, bells, only Pärt does it with more than bells. Like Bach, he’s also fond of repetition. Wave upon wave of musical refrain and echo and repetition. Are these not musical tools in the poet’s toolbox, too?

When Pärt is not around, I go with Johann Sebastian himself. Or Sibelius, whose music has a nice Finnish to it (don’t groan–the Bard is fond of puns, too, and no one groans).

Finally, before I sit down to classical music at the word processor and begin to write, I like to read good poetry for at least a half hour. Wonderful word play by masters sets the tone. Inspires. Fools you into saying, “Shoot. I can do that!” And, make no mistake, this conceit must be present, even if it is a wild conceit.

Results may vary, as they say. As will definitions of “ideal.” As long as you have some, that’s all. As long as you could write this column, too.

Basho Springs a Surprise (and Other Paeans to Spring)

daffodil

It feels like winter still, but the Old Farmer’s Almanac says differently. It’s the first day of spring. The long-awaited equinox. Poets, like farmers, have forever taken note. It moved Robert “Beginning to Melt” Frost to prayer, for instance:

“A Prayer in Spring”

Oh, give us pleasure in the flowers today;
And give us not to think so far away
As the uncertain harvest; keep us here
All simply in the springing of the year.

Oh, give us pleasure in the orchard white,
Like nothing else by day, like ghosts by night;
And make us happy in the happy bees,
The swarm dilating round the perfect trees.

And make us happy in the darting bird
That suddenly above the bees is heard,
The meteor that thrusts in with needle bill,
And off a blossom in mid air stands still.

For this is love and nothing else is love,
To which it is reserved for God above
To sanctify to what far ends he will,
But which it only needs that we fulfill.

Yes, yes. There’s something about spring that pulls the “Oh’s” and the “O’s” from poets’ throats. I give you the experienced (and innocent) William Blake:

“To Spring”

O thou with dewy locks, who lookest down
Thro’ the clear windows of the morning, turn
Thine angel eyes upon our western isle,
Which in full choir hails thy approach, O Spring!

The hills tell each other, and the listening
Valleys hear; all our longing eyes are turned
Up to thy bright pavilions: issue forth,
And let thy holy feet visit our clime.

Come o’er the eastern hills, and let our winds
Kiss thy perfumed garments; let us taste
Thy morn and evening breath; scatter thy pearls
Upon our love-sick land that mourns for thee.

O deck her forth with thy fair fingers; pour
Thy soft kisses on her bosom; and put
Thy golden crown upon her languished head,
Whose modest tresses were bound up for thee.

There’s something about British poets and cuckoos, too. Here they only come in clocks: Eastern Standard Cuckoos and Daylight Savings Cuckoos. Let’s listen to some Bardilicious Shakespeare:

“Spring”

When daisies pied, and violets blue,
And lady-smocks all silver-white,
And cuckoo-buds of yellow hue
Do paint the meadows with delight,
The cuckoo then, on every tree,
Mocks married men, for thus sings he:
‘Cuckoo!
Cuckoo, cuckoo!’ O word of fear,
Unpleasing to a married ear.
When shepherds pipe on oaten straws,
And merry larks are ploughmen’s clocks,
When turtles tread, and rooks, and daws,
And maidens bleach their summer smocks,
The cuckoo then, on every tree,
Mocks married men, for thus sings he:
‘Cuckoo!
Cuckoo, cuckoo!’ O word of fear,
Unpleasing to a married ear.

Closer to (my) home, we have Claude McKay mucking about New Hampshire in mud season, thinking on fast-approaching April and slower-approaching May:

“Spring in New Hampshire”

Too green the springing April grass,
Too blue the silver-speckled sky,
For me to linger here, alas,
While happy winds go laughing by,
Wasting the golden hours indoors,
Washing windows and scrubbing floors.

Too wonderful the April night,
Too faintly sweet the first May flowers,
The stars too gloriously bright,
For me to spend the evening hours,
When fields are fresh and streams are leaping,
Wearied, exhausted, dully sleeping.

Here Katherine Mansfield unfurls a few flags of tenderest green:

“Very Early Spring”

The fields are snowbound no longer;
There are little blue lakes and flags of tenderest green.
The snow has been caught up into the sky–
So many white clouds–and the blue of the sky is cold.
Now the sun walks in the forest,
He touches the bows and stems with his golden fingers;
They shiver, and wake from slumber.
Over the barren branches he shakes his yellow curls.
Yet is the forest full of the sound of tears….
A wind dances over the fields.
Shrill and clear the sound of her waking laughter,
Yet the little blue lakes tremble
And the flags of tenderest green bend and quiver.

Pete Crowther channels the old country of “Jolly Olde,” plowing the way for red-winged blackbird season:

“Srping–It Is Icumen In”

There is no breath of wind today
The fields still white with frost
So clear the air that I can see
For miles and miles to where
A village church is almost hid
By trees, and here and there
A tiny plume of smoke betrays
Some farmhouse tucked away.
All seems to be expectancy:
The very air vibrates
And sparkles with the promise that
Sweet spring is on the way.
I feel my spirit lift, take wing
To be alive this day.

(Crowther’s being a play on the Middle English song with its famous refrain: Sing cuccu nu. Sing cuccu / Sing cuccu. Sing cuccu nu!)

Finally, lest your eyes go bleary with all these distinct, look-alike paeans to spring, I leave you with Matsuo Basho. You can always count on Basho to approach things differently. And succinctly:

First day of spring–
I keep thinking about
the end of autumn.

Sigh…

 

 

“This Is Your Book on Drugs…”

egg

Remember the old anti-drug commercial with the egg and the frying pan? “This is your brain on drugs,” it said. Drop egg into pan. Pipe in amped sound of sizzling.

I love metaphor, especially sunny-side up metaphors. Only having your first book of poems accepted for publication can be cloudy-side up at times. Think of it metaphorically: “This is your book on published and released.” It becomes many things, but few of them are what you imagined in the starry-eyed, naiveté of your pre-published days.

Soon, you learn, and your education in book publishing is a wonderful lesson in metaphor as well. Almost a year after my first was published, here are but a few that come to mind:

A published book is a mote of sand on the South Beach of life.

A published book is not a cry in the wilderness, but a cry from a seat in the last row at the Super Bowl of Published Authors. After a Hail Mary reception. For the win.

A published book is an unholy mackerel in the biggest school the ocean has ever educated.

A published book is a Who on the day Horton loses his hearing-aid.

A published book is a sales statistic you cannot easily pronounce on amazon dot all-is-not-calm.

A published book is a pile in a book bag in your study. Like your little brother who kept tagging along instead of running off to get himself sold or something.

A published book is the one you actually have time to reread. And critique. When it’s too late.

A published book is a falling ex-tree in a forest. Does it make a sound?

A published book is the sound of one person reading. Maybe you. OK, definitely you.

A published book is sharp. Like that needle in the haystack would be. If people could see it.

A published book is not a Billy. It is not a Collins, either.

A published book is not a Barnes & Noble shelf squatter.

A published book is an x-ray. When held to the light, it shows no signs of New Yorker.

A published book is a first edition looking for the Godot of its second.

A published book begs attention like a panhandler in New York City. Pedestrians see it as fire hydrant. Pigeon, maybe. A sidewalk crack, perhaps.

A published book is read by your family. Well, some of your family. OK, your spouse. Because you read it aloud. While she’s trying to eat her burrito and do the crossword.

A published book is a glowing book review written not in a room of the New York Times but in the rheum of your eyes every time you browse through it. After a few wines.

A published book is hundreds upon hundreds of Goodreads “to-reads.” It is one “currently-reading.” Maybe you. Or your Secret Sharer. Or Joseph Conrad. Who is dead.

A published book is your son in left field after he got hit on the head with a lazy fly ball. You’re still proud of him, and though he’s not batting clean-up or winning gold gloves, you don’t give up on having more children.

Nota Bene: Good News, gentle readers! My second poetry collection has been accepted by a publisher and will be released around the New Year! Metaphor: A second published book is… as great a joy as the first!

A Poetic Voice for the Deaf and the Blind

braille

Recently, there’s been an interesting development in the arts–a reactive one that reflects turmoil in the political world. The more Trump and some of his emboldened followers continue their drumbeat of discriminatory words and policies based on race, religion, gender, and sexual identity, the more poets and writers begin to write about the minority experience.

To see this, you need only look at editorial statements from journals, many inviting minority voices to submit. And submit they have. Journals are showing more and more that not only black lives matter, so do female voices; Jewish and Muslim voices; and gay, lesbian, and transgender voices.

But the most politicized minorities are not the only ones. There are many minorities around us and, sometimes, within us. By way of example, for years Massachusetts poet Paul Hostovsky, a Braille instructor and interpreter for the deaf, has been writing poetry about the deaf and blind. His work is further proof that art humanizes us and shows how similar we all are despite our differences.

One of the hallmarks of Hostovsky’s work is his sense of humor. There is a place for righteousness and anger in our fraught political times, of course, but there is also reason to occasionally use the lighter touch, to show how humor can often demonstrate the ties that bind as well as any polemic. Here are a few examples from Hostovsky’s work, each in its way transporting the seeing and hearing majority–for a brief, shining moment–to a little-experienced point of view:

“Away Game at the School for the Deaf” by Paul Hostovsky

Maybe we were thinking ears
instead of hands.
Stepping off the bus, we glimpsed
a flicker, then a flitting
from a sleeve. We felt
annoyed, then afraid,
like spotting an ant on the tablecloth, then
another and another, till it hit us:
what we had on our hands was a nest, 
a population:
everyone here signed
except for us, and our bus driver
was departing in our empty yellow school bus
leaving us standing there, wondering
where the gym was.

Once inside, we polished our lay-ups,
stole looks
at the deaf team polishing theirs:
we were taller,
but something in the air—tunneling, darting,
singing among them—
said they were quicker.
Their whoops when they scored, their groans
when the ball rolled round the rim full circle
and out,
were perfectly intelligible.
But the ref was at a loss:
he kept blowing his whistle
while they dribbled to the hoop,
scoring points that didn’t count.

“Braille in Public Places” by Paul Hostovsky

Touch me, I know you want to.
What would you say if I told you
I’ve never been touched in my life
by anyone who understood me?
And even if they were having
their convention here in this building,
squeezing into this elevator,
looking around for this restroom,
bumping gently up against each other like
a queue of balloons at this
ATM–do you think they would
see me, or even think to look?
I hate my life. I should have been
a poem by Li Po with a pond
and a frog, a soft rain and a pebble
the size of a braille dot thrown in.
At least I’d have something to do
with myself for eternity. I have
nothing to do with anyone. I am
someone holding up a sign
in an airport terminal, waiting
for a look of recognition to come
from among the arrivals who never
arrive. And it never comes. What
would that look even look like? Would I
recognize it? Is it round like
a smile? Is it pointed like a greeting
or a touch? Would I mistake it for
love? All of my life I have waited
to be touched by someone who could
touch me like that. I have given myself
goose bumps, look, just imaging it.

 

— from Selected Poems by Paul Hostovsky, Future Cycle Press 2014

The Sheer Poetry of Dullness

eater

Quotidian. Mundane. For most of us, it’s the relentless repetition and ordinariness of the sun also rising and setting. But make no mistake, it once started in the fertile soil of dreams. And, somehow, a tendril of hope remains in the ground beneath our feet, no matter how scorched it has become by the cycling sun.

I think of this each time I feel empty of ideas and inspiration. I think of it when I hear students say the same upon being assigned memoir writing: “I can’t write because nothing ever happens in my life.”

Dull. Life is dull. The assignment changes on the fly. The assignment, then, is to write about dull. Find beauty in dull. Find heartache in dull. Sniff out hope and acknowledge despair–odd but constant bedfellows–in dull.

I think of this because we all have such ample material when it comes to making music from such ordinary chords. I think of this when I read about Gwendolyn Brooks’ bean eaters in their rented back room full of beads and receipts and dolls and cloths and tobacco crumbs and vases and fringes. A polysyndeton of purposefulness, day in and day out, putting on their clothes and putting things away because life demands it of them.

Consider it, next time you’re feeling down. Consider it, too, next time you think you and you alone are denied of ideas–ideas which humbly lie all around you, hidden by a cloak woven of ordinariness.

“The Bean Eaters” by Gwendolyn Brooks

They eat beans mostly, this old yellow pair.
Dinner is a casual affair.
Plain chipware on a plain and creaking wood, 
Tin flatware.

Two who are Mostly Good.
Two who have lived their day,
But keep on putting on their clothes
And putting things away.

And remembering . . .
Remembering, with twinklings and twinges,
As they lean over the beans in their rented back room that
          is full of beads and receipts and dolls and cloths,
          tobacco crumbs, vases and fringes.

Love Poetry in an Unusual Place: the Bible

sol

One of the great revelations (if you’ll pardon the word) of my youth was learning that you could read the Bible two ways — one if by religion and two if by literature. Another epiphany (if you’ll pardon a second word, oh good judge) was that the Bible wasn’t always a stodgy read. Who put me on to this? My 87-year-old great aunt.

Yep. As if she were discussing the weather, my devout Aunt Mae once got on the topic of the Good Book, which is really a whole lot of good smaller books. I was showing off by telling her how much I enjoyed reading the King James Version of Ecclesiastes in the Old Testament. What led me there? Of all things, the less-than-holy book, The Sun Also Rises, by Ernest Hemingway. Papa had stolen his title from Ecclesiastes one day when he was chasing after wind and rivers returning to the sea. Me, I just wanted to read the source of his catchy title.

Anyway, back to Aunt Mae. She nodded and kindly allowed me my cynical dose-of-reality Old Testament favorite, but then she looked toward the ceiling and waxed poetic on the merits of the Song of Solomon, the book directly following Ecclesiastes‘ hard act to follow. What’s more, when I looked later, I discovered that the Song of Solomon is even shorter than its predecessor. To a teenager, that spells “readable”!

The very night of our discussion, I dove into my KJV again. Whoa! This book was kind of sexy. Well, for the Bible, I mean. The young lovers of the little book that could were in worship mode, I discovered, but mostly about the wonders of love between (pardon us, Percy Sledge) a man and a woman. Metaphors and similes grow like kudzu in Solomon’s catchy tune, too.

For example, let’s cast a poetic eye on 5: 10-16, wherein she speaks of him:

My beloved is white and ruddy, the chiefest among ten thousand.

His head is as the most fine gold, his locks are bushy, and black as a raven.

His eyes are as the eyes of doves by the rivers of waters, washed with milk, and fitly set.

His cheeks are as a bed of spices, as sweet flowers: his lips like lilies, dropping sweet smelling myrrh.

His hands are as gold rings set with the beryl: his belly is as bright ivory overlaid with sapphires.

His legs are as pillars of marble, set upon sockets of fine gold: his countenance is as Lebanon, excellent as the cedars.

His mouth is most sweet: yea, he is altogether lovely. This is my beloved, and this is my friend, O daughters of Jerusalem.

Followed by 7: 1-9, wherein he returns the favor:

How beautiful are thy feet with shoes, O prince’s daughter! the joints of thy thighs are like jewels, the work of the hands of a cunning workman.

Thy navel is like a round goblet, which wanteth not liquor: thy belly is like an heap of wheat set about with lilies.

Thy two breasts are like two young roes that are twins.

Thy neck is as a tower of ivory; thine eyes like the fishpools in Heshbon, by the gate of Bathrabbim: thy nose is as the tower of Lebanon which looketh toward Damascus.

Thine head upon thee is like Carmel, and the hair of thine head like purple; the king is held in the galleries.

How fair and how pleasant art thou, O love, for delights!

This thy stature is like to a palm tree, and thy breasts to clusters of grapes.

I said, I will go up to the palm tree, I will take hold of the boughs thereof: now also thy breasts shall be as clusters of the vine, and the smell of thy nose like apples;

And the roof of thy mouth like the best wine for my beloved, that goeth down sweetly, causing the lips of those that are asleep to speak.

Granted, the figurative language trades in objects and allusions most Biblical–ones sounding a bit foreign to modern ears–but there’s no questioning the ardor heating up these pages. The lyrical poetry is a paean to youth, love, the beauty of God’s human creations. In short, the book serves as early inspiration for a favorite font of poetry (even in months outside of February), love.

My discussion was many decades ago in a city far, far away, but I’ll never forget Aunt Mae’s eyes, how they sparkled clear and young again as she glanced up and momentarily lost herself in praise of this book. Who was she recalling, I wonder? Surely a love from her deep and storied past. Surely a tale I would never hear but could infer, anyway. A story that repeats through the annals of time with an infinite cast of entering and exiting players….

Scraps of Summer Blowing Across the March Sky

stars

This morning, while walking the dog at 4:30 a.m., a trio of old friends greeted me. Yes, it’s an odd hour for such meetings, but not when you consider that darkness is essential to these three. There, low in the east, was the Summer Triangle, making itself comfortable in March. The Three Celestial Wise Men, I call them. The ones who appear each summer night as Altair, Deneb, and Vega (you were expecting Mechior, Caspar, and Balthasar?).

It helped that this was the last 40-degree Fahrenheit morning before polar air returns to New England this weekend. And it certainly was a cheerful sight. I’d forgotten that the constellations of Aquila, Cygnus, and Lyra appear as a trailer this early. Catch them by night in July and August, but preview them by the pre-dawn skies in March and April.

Life is fond of hiding surprises like that. You just have to look for them. Just like looking for inspiration. Or a poem. Or a break from bad news on the doorstep. Sooner or later, from the periphery of your eye, a sparkle of something nice in the darkness before your dawns.

I got eye-greedy after that. As the dog enjoyed long and leisurely sniffs of tree trunks, wind- fallen limbs, and every seventh grass blade, I took in the Big Dipper, its tail arcing toward Arcturus, the tiara we call Corona Borealis, and the pulsing red jewel known as Antares on the Scorpion’s back.

Is there anything more poetic than stars? From this remove, they seem ever peaceful and even immortal and beyond aging or ugliness. False, false and false, I realize, but perception is everything and, trust me, they are a lot more peaceful than planet Earth and will prove more immortal and pretty in the end, too.

From the mundane comes the sublime, writing-wise. Scraps of summer blowing across a dark March sky. Yeah. I like stuff like that. But then, it doesn’t take much to make my day. Even before it begins.

You, Too, Could Write a Poem

orr

I am closing in on the final page of New York Times poetry columnist (now THERE’S a job) David Orr’s You, Too, Could Write a Poem. Naively, I thought it was a book about writing poetry from a man who reads poems for a living. Not quite. It’s a collection of Orr columns that have already appeared in the Times, the first of which is called “You, Too, Could Write a Poem.”

But even that is a curveball of sorts. If you think that the first essay, at least, is about the democratic nature of poetry writing, you’d be wrong. It is Orr’s take on the notorious “Best of” series, wherein bookstore shelves are annually littered with titles like The Best American Poetry (and, beyond that, you can scratch poetry and pencil in words like “Essays,” “Sports Writing,” and “Short Stories”).

The trouble with any “best of” book is that it is only as good as its editor. The other, even bigger, problem is that choosing the best of anything in any given year is positively Sisyphean. We might as well call it The Approaching-Best Poems According to Our Guest Editor of the Year, Who Has Many Connections and Prejudices That Will Surely Show Themselves on These Pages. But that would be unwieldy. And tough to fit on a cover.

Orr gets into this a bit himself, when he writes, “What this series stands for isn’t excellence, aesthetic or otherwise, but the idea of poetry as a community activity. ‘People are writing poems!’ each volume cries. ‘You, too, could write a poem!’ It’s an appealingly democratic pose, and it has always been the genuinely ‘best’ thing about the Best American series. The only problem is that poetry isn’t really an open system; it’s a combination of odd institutions, personal networks, hoary traditions, talent, and blind luck. It’s both an art and a guild, in other words. And if basic participation is possible for anyone with a heartbeat and a laptop, the requirements for the deluxe plan — the true ‘Best American’ plan, if you will — are obscure to all but a handful. The negotiation between what we now call the ‘best’ and what we’ll later call the ‘great’ never ends; each year the Best American Poetry offers a new compromise, and each year the truce is broken, the sides are marshaled, and the oldest argument begins again.”

Being a neophyte to the world of published poetry, I cannot help but wonder at words like “odd institutions, personal networks, hoary traditions, talent, and blind luck.” From that suspect line-up, I feel most ready to point at personal networks, for isn’t that true in ALL institutions — political, commercial, academic, and beyond?

And in the name of clarification and elaboration, what are these odd networks and hoary traditions Orr speaks of? The talent and blind luck make not only sense, but dollars. You need talent to write “good” poetry, I’m sure, but it is not necessarily the coin of the realm in the country of the published. Sometimes blind luck is the only currency that gets an outsider through the customs gate. And which gate? With which poem as ID?

So, yes. I’m well into Orr’s book and, even though it was misleading, the title essay did entertain and intrigue me, only I wish Orr would share more of what he knows about this byzantine world, this mysterious oligarchy of poets rich in connections, talent, and traditions (both time-honored and for-breaking, which is equally time-honored).