Two Love Poems by Derek Walcott

You might question my designation of this first poem as a love poem but I would counter that a poem need not mention the word “love” to be a love poem. To be precise, though, one might call it a lovelorn poem or a writer’s poem about love and loss. From someone who lives in the Northeast, watching the snow not quite melting on this day before spring, it seems the perfect choice to mourn his passing this weekend.

It’s called “In the Village,” and perhaps the fact that I had the joy and honor of reading with the poets of 2 Bridges Review in the East Village less than two weeks ago, is another reason it resonates so deeply with me today. The text can be found here.

The second poem is one that I recorded before but I was not happy with it. Even this time, I question myself about how I stressed certain words and not others. But I always do that when I read the work of other poets and each reading is its own interpretation. You can find many interpretations on YouTube and elsewhere online of this poem called “Love After Love.”

In the Village

Love After Love

And now the poet and playwright’s book White Egrets sits beside me here at my table this afternoon and his book-length poem Omeros awaits my return on the shelf. The music and tone of his language I can only describe as luminous. We are fortunate that he lived to be 87 and brought so much richness to the world of literature. Read more about the Nobel laureate and his work here and in the following articles.

Cleaving, the Video

Bluebird and Owl, Favorite Mugs

Back in September of 2016, my poem, “Cleaving,” was published in the online literary magazine, Yellow Chair Review.  I almost forgot that five years ago, my two youngest sons and I did a little recording of it for YouTube. But after the editing of the poem and the video, we decided that it was good enough to submit for publication somewhere and kept it “under wraps.”

At that time I had started sporadically submitting things to be published and most places considered anything Google-able to be “previously published.” Almost nobody wants to print previously published poems. And though the words were not “printed,” they did appear onscreen in the minute and forty-five-second clip, so we thought it best to just “temporarily” shelve the wonderful piece of production, as of that time seen only by a few friends.

Well, I’ve been submitting more regularly and frequently the last two years, and thankfully Yellow Chair Review saw fit to include “Cleaving” in its 8th issue. Six months have passed and while you can read it there on their pages, along with two other poems they were gracious enough to publish, I decided it was time to dust off the video.  Continue reading

To Not Praise the Devil

img_20161214_122532On Facebook I’ve been sharing pictures of my Christmas tree and my favorite ornaments, some sentimental, others decidedly silly. And as I posted a photo of the wreath on my front door, bearing the simple message of “Peace,” I was watching the news out of Aleppo. As I write this, a second cease-fire is allowing for an evacuation of the besieged eastern part of the city.

We Americans like to think we have no part in what’s going on there but I won’t get into that today. My focus for this particular post is about recognizing the evil that is going on, even doing what you can about it, without being completely overwhelmed by it.

It’s an appropriate topic after this recent election in the US, the controversy and conflict of which still rattles on. And for my purposes here, how do I as an artist respond? Do I respond? If I don’t does that mean I am complicit at worst and “enablist” at best?

I’ve got several poems in the making since November 8th that are decidedly political. Will all of those turn out to be publishable, “good” pieces of art? Probably not. But one or two might. Some poets are more gifted at that sort of work than I am. Rattle has an entire section of their site dedicated to poets responding to the news.

You will probably never see one of my poems there. Not because I am against political poetry, but because I am generally not able to crank out a good piece fast enough for the Twitterverse. By the time I’ve let the dough rise and bake, the if-it-bleeds-it-leads news cycle has moved on to other fast-breaking fodder. Perhaps I am envious of those who can respond to world events so quickly and still make great, rather than sloppy, art out of it. Perhaps I am worried about becoming a reactionist instead of an activist.

Mostly I am concerned about all the free advertising I’ve already given to a certain candidate this year. It’s a tough balance; you have to recognize the threat, but if you spend most of your campaign talking about how dangerous the other candidate is, you put yourself at great risk by, as Jack Gilbert says, “Praising the devil.” What’s that old saying: All publicity is good publicity?

I wasn’t going to get into all of this just yet. I do have a longer post on the topic in mind and will be sharing that soon. For now, here is the poem that I’ve thought most about since the 8th and since we’ve finally recognized, after five years of civil war, what’s actually been going on in Aleppo. Read the text of the poem and more about Gilbert himself at The Sun, here.

I first recorded this piece three years ago, about a  year after Jack Gilbert’s death. But with a better microphone and more perspective, I thought it was time to record it again. Whatever is happening in your world today, I bid you peace.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Happy Birthday, Miss Emily

English: A cabinet card copy of a daguerreotyp...

English: A cabinet card copy of a daguerreotype of Emily Dickinson (unauthenticated) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I almost forgot that today was Emily Dickinson’s birthday but then I saw this article from the New York Public Library where I learned that Miss Emily was a musician as well as a poet. It’s a great read and I’ll include the audio clip from George Boziwick, the Chief of the Music Division of the NYPL for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center. The Soundcloud audio is included in the article, which you are going to want to read. It’s from 2014 but it’s full of information that I was not aware of about the musical influence on her work.

You may have heard that many of her poems could be sung to the tune of “The Yellow Rose of Texas,” which is, unfortunately, also metrically identical to the theme song from “Gilligan’s Island.” To get that out of your head, you might try something with more class like “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God,” or “Amazing Grace.” At least then you’d be close to the inspiration from where here rhythm probably originated. In my choir director days, a hundred years ago, I used to enjoy switching popular hymn lyrics with other tunes for the choir to sing. Many hymnals come with a metrical index for that purpose.

But to reduce Miss Emily’s meter to ditties stuck in our heads is to trivialize it. The point is that this is the sort of meter that was probably often in her head, and so for a formal poet it seems like a natural progression to write to that beat.  Of course, she wrote poems that didn’t fit that mold too.

Those of us who have been exposed to half a century or more of free verse may find difficulty in reading her work out loud without it coming off as sing-songy. But maybe that’s okay. After all, one of the few recordings we have of Yeats is of him reading in a very rhythmic manner and what’s more, he explains that he is doing so on purpose. I had a discussion with a friend recently about this and it has me wondering if we’ve missed something to the music when we try to read poetry as we would read prose. Let’s talk more about that soon.

But for now, an important birthday anniversary is slipping away as my clock hurries toward midnight. Below is an experiment that my dear Brian and I conducted just in the last hour while he was recording here in the living room. I pulled my mic and laptop over and asked if he would play a little something to fit this poem by Emily that I had never even heard of until tonight. So he made something up and I read. This is the second take and we enjoyed the spontaneity of it. I hope you do too.

I’ll include the written version below the recording, and after that, the New York Library audio I mentioned above. You might also enjoy this read by another lovely voice here. Oh, and for more information about Emily’s writing style, and especially about the recent, and very visual collection of her scraps and notes and later poems you’ll want to check out this wonderful piece in the New Yorker.

This poem is often called “The Jay” or “The Blue Jay” but our birthday poet never did bother much with titles, so those who cataloged them simply called it #51

#51, “The Jay” by Emily Dickinson

No brigadier throughout the year
So civic as the jay.
A neighbor and a warrior too,
With shrill felicity

Pursuing winds that censure us
A February day,
The brother of the universe
Was never blown away.

The snow and he are intimate;
I ‘ve often seen them play
When heaven looked upon us all
With such severity,

I felt apology were due
To an insulted sky,
Whose pompous frown was nutriment
To their temerity.

The pillow of this daring head
Is pungent evergreens;
His larder — terse and militant —
Unknown, refreshing things;

His character a tonic,
His future a dispute;
Unfair an immortality
That leaves this neighbor out.

Where the Pickle Confuses, Celebrating Shel Silverstein

From my collection.

From my collection.

I have been rearranging the living room, and in the process of organizing the shelves discovered that I seem to be missing a few books by birthday boy, Shel Silverstein. Hopefully, they are at my boys’ house.  You may not be aware that Lafcadio, the Lion Who Shot Back, was his first children’s story, published in 1963. It was a gift to me after my coming out, from a dear and intimate friend, a reminder that others, on all sides of the sexuality spectrum, would try to shape me into what they saw me as, an identity created by them to match their own stories. I think he wanted me to be aware of the danger, and to encourage me to continue to be brave, to write my own character, my own story, my own life.

Despite the enormous influence he’s had in our family’s reading time, and my own autonomy, I haven’t  recorded much of his work. It’s hard to compete with his many recordings, his playful voice and guitar.  But in celebration of his birthday this September 25th, here are a few videos for the occasion. Continue reading