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.

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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

Stevie Smith’s Birthday Bog

That’s not a typo. I did say “bog.” You’ll understand soon enough.

Happy birthday to poet Stevie Smith, born Florence Margaret Smith. Had she lived she would be 114 years old today, though I’m sure she’d be annoyed about it. As it was she lived only 69 years, and while you may know nothing about her at all, I guarantee that she was an influence to many contemporary poets, maybe even you? Nobody, especially in the UK, was writing the way she was at the time.

Below, in the first video, I talk a bit about that and read her poem “Pretty,” originally recorded on my YouTube channel six years ago. The still shot for that is kinda weird, but I’ll leave it there for posterity. In 2012, I wrote more extensively about Stevie and recorded the second video, Continue reading

William Stafford Weekend, Part 2


The battered copy that has followed me since my first semester in Indiana.

It was in September of 1987 that William Stafford’s little book, An Oregon Message was first published. So with the authority not even vested in me, I have proclaimed this William Stafford Weekend, and it shall be evermore known as thus. Well, if you promise not to forget.

Check out Saturday’s post to follow all the links to more of Stafford’s written words, as well as his videos and audio recordings. And if you’ve been hanging around the Dad Poet blog for any length of time you know that Stafford is, as our American Vice President might say, a “BFD” for me. I’ve written about him here no less than 17 times, and most often those posts included bits from my Soundcloud or YouTube channels.

Also, if you love Stafford, make sure you get a copy of this book while there are still a few new, but mostly used, copies of it available. Of course, if Amazon can get it, there’s a good chance your local bookstore can order it in for you too, and if you just have too many books on your shelf, be sure to ask your local library if they have a copy or can get it for you. Lots of libraries participate in inter-library loan programs and can get you a borrowed copy of almost anything.

I’ve noticed in book reviews, both the stodgy, official ones, as well as the casual “Good Reads” type of recommendations, people are fond of quoting from his introduction, “Some Notes on Writing.” In fact, Continue reading