For the details of why I am posting this here, you can review the last post.
Let’s keep this simple. I’m sharing a couple of poems of mine that were published three years ago by Word Fountain, the Literary Magazine of the Osterhout Free Library. At that time I had no idea that I would someday be managing a small branch of the Osterhout, let alone become the editor-in-chief of this magazine, or any magazine for that matter.
So here’s one that is a response to a Billy Collins poem, even though his poem wasn’t really what I thought it was at first. I explain that in the video. When I met Billy Collins, the same year this video was recorded, it was at King’s College, just about a block from the main Osterhout branch, more than an hour from where I was living at the time. I asked him to sign next to his poem, and explained why.
He soberly asked, “Have you ever been kayaking on the Susquehanna?”
I replied, “Yes–”
He interrupted, “Then it doesn’t count.”
Simultaneously I said, “And it was a pleasure.” He laughed! I made Billy Collins laugh. That’s a nice memory. Maybe you’ll understand when you hear the reading. The text of the poem is below the video, and the original it was based on is here.
For the Man in the Museum
(After Billy Collins)
Not in July or any month have I had the pleasure—if it is a pleasure— Of fishing on the Susquehanna. – Billy Collins
Kayaking on the Susquehanna—
now that’s a pleasure—in July or
any month lacking ice or floods.
I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a painting
of someone kayaking on the Susquehanna,
or any Pennsylvania waters for that matter.
My body feels it now, the ache that pushes
muscles as I row this rocking rhythm,
the meter of my stroke a little off—
two beats to port for each at starboard.
This fat little sit-on-top is made
for ocean waves, not upstream track.
But it’s the only kayak I own, so I row
on the Susquehanna, my backyard stream.
This far north of Harrisburg where West
meets North, the water’s deep, at least
when the dam is up. It’s inflatable, you know,
like the ego of poets who don’t know
about boats or bats that swoop past,
or fishing poles, or calloused hands,
curved paddles that dip and scoop,
and dribble Susquehanna into your lap.
It’s dusk; two ducks, and a loon flap past,
wings nearly tipping the waves. I tire and drift
the way we poets do when we’ve pushed
the pen too hard, and need to let
the stream find us again.
The slow current spins me facing downstream,
toward a low waxing moon, and even the rise
of countless mayflies doesn’t hide the glow
of pink sky above a bank of jumbled trees.
I imagine, as I glide toward shore,
a man in a museum, mind adrift,
gazing at a picture of a stranger
kayaking on the Susquehanna.
He senses something he has missed,
and thinks to write of his regret,
fleeting as a Pennsylvania rabbit,
briefly mourning a euphoria he’ll never know.
Shoulders sore, a setting sun, the moon
and first few stars hover over slow
roving water. Up ahead a bass jumps
for the day’s last fly. From far away I feel
his gaze. I pull my body up and out, and tug
the craft to ground, dripping the river behind me.
It was two years ago that Suzie Grogan and I played a game of tennis with posts about the love poems we wish we had written, and yet, romantically perhaps, it seems a lifetime ago. Please pardon the cliché! Well, Suzie is at it again on No More Wriggling Out of Writing, and I’m going to follow her lead this time. She’s taking requests this year, or at least suggestions, and I’ll do the same.
What love poem makes you wish you had written it?
Suzie’s first of the week is the classic, and very romantic, “The Good Morrow,” by John Donne, with a marvelous reading by Kenneth Branagh. In this age of Grey’s fifty shades, I concur with her insistence that “Donne is sexier by far than anything E L James came up with.”
The poem I have chosen for my first of this 2015 Valentine’s week, by contrast, is contemporary, and was recommended by my son Micah, known in the blogging world as The Monkey Prodigy. The poem even features a heart just waiting for arrows to pierce it. Sounds like a Valentine’s Day poem, no? Well, maybe it’s a different kind of love, maybe a better kind, the sort of love born of attention and care, and well, how could that not be a romantic good?
Billy Collins is often a guest on “A Prairie Home Companion with Garrison Keillor.” Just this weekend he appeared with guest host Chris Thile for another wonderful show. The video below was from a PHP reading a little over a year ago.
The poem seems to start as a lighthearted exploration of the way we thoughtlessly toss around the concept of falling in love, but in the end, even in the joke of the soap after handling a mouse, there is something in the way the poet caresses the details, the way great poets do, that brings about a simple authenticity that just feels right and, well good. Well, I think it’s lovely, and a good first choice, as it is from his 2013 book of the same title, “Aimless Love.” Thank you, Micah!
I am truly tickled to see so much being written about poetry during this (inter)National Poetry Month to an audience outside the traditional poetry scene. Often people who claim to dislike poetry merely had a bad experience, likely in high school, as Billy Collins likes to say “the place where poetry goes to die.” But it may be that people who don’t care for poetry have just never had it presented to them well, or that it has been so long that they don’t remember. I could be more cynical about pop culture, but I get so caught up in that hope thing.
Last week the Huffington Post published “7 Poetry Collections for Every Type of Reader.” While that title is ambiguously more expansive than its article delivers, the seven books suggested are indeed appropriately excellent suggestions for various kinds of readers who might otherwise not read poems at all. I give the article a good score for starting with a book of Kay Ryan poems, and including some scraps of images from Emily Dickinson who wrote on everything from napkins to receipts. Bonus points for including the mention of Frank O’Hara’s “Having a Coke with You.”
Also of note was Flavorwire’s “50 Essential Books of Poetry that Everyone Should Read.” Granted, I wish they had included Yeats, and you’ll quickly notice an “essential” favorite of your own that has been left out, but it’s impossible to cover every highlight in 50 books. So if you have books to add to it, I encourage you to write a follow-up post and link to it in the comments. Still, the rationale behind their selections is sound, and you will find many solid recommendations in their list, whether they be for you yourself, or for your friend who thinks he “hates” poems.
Nearly two years ago I wrote a blog post that still gets hits and attention, and shows up in my “most popular” posts stats, so I went to give it a visit today and realized that in the comments there were some excellent points that I seemed to have missed. I don’t know if anyone will get the message that I replied to them two years later, but I just couldn’t help myself.
The post entitled “Why (Even We) Hate Poetry” was an extension of this discussion started by J. Lynn Sherridan on her blog Writing on the Sun. To boil it down we mainly discussed two extremes of the poetry world, or maybe I should say what passes as poetry. First we agreed we hated what she called “goobery poetry.” Here’s what she had to say about that:
I hate rainbow poems unless they’re for kids or all in fun. I hate bubble bath poetry. I hate reading a poem and feeling like I need to scrape the sentiment off with a spatula.
It took me the longest time to figure out why. I think it’s because some poems just don’t ring true. A love poem can be beautiful but it must sound sincere and authentic. Not contrived.
But we also seemed to agree that while poetry takes some effort to really grasp as opposed to simply enjoying a passing listen, we also hated the idea of difficulty for difficulty-sake poems, especially when in an attempt to avoid over-sentimentality are so stand-offish as to feel completely without guts or soul. Here is a bit of what I had to say about that:
I am not against difficulty or challenge. But the challenge and difficulty like all aspects of art should be appropriate to the art at hand, and not be difficult just for the sake of difficulty itself. It’s that arrogance that I read in some of these modern philosophical pieces that pisses me off. You can almost hear the poet saying, “Hah! I bet that you won’t get that, and anyway you’ll need a dictionary to read my writing, because I just proved I’m smarter than you.”
This sort of thing seems to be less prevalent than I recall from the workshops and early slams of the late nineties and 2000s, but I am still puzzled by how frequently I read in very reputable and respected literary journals poetry that is so. . . I don’t know, lifeless? I don’t wish to contribute to the anti-elitist cliché, but the flowery ornament of intellect and thesaurus is, when it comes down to it, just as fake and flat, just as horrible and unlovely as the flowery sap of insincere greeting card sentiment.
Even if the form is precise, the language lovely, the music, the meter, the sound. . . there must be some sense, something in it that pulls or kicks at our gut, or am I missing the point of art? My point is that both saying something and saying it splendidly are important. Even the nonsense of Lewis Carrol and Kenneth Koch has an emotional sense, that for lack of a better description, feels right, or surprises while it fulfills. The language must say something, even if it is ambiguous, that moves us, and it must say it in a way that recognizes itself as language (to borrow favorite professor Stephen Whitworth‘s phrase). Good poetry is not merely form and intelligent language, not merely a word-puzzle, but also a human event, even if only a small one.
I don’t look for a poet to impress me that he is smarter than me. There are a lot of people who are smarter than me that can say things that are difficult for me to understand. I look for a poet to impress me that he has more artistic imagination and vision and has the power to make me wonder how long it took to work with all those words in order to tell that story and at the same time make it rhyme or have rhythm or alliteration. Impress me by being able to work at multiple levels and bring it all together in ways that leave me standing bowed over in humbled wonder at the beautiful artistry of the act of creation.
And I would like to add that the reward should be worth the effort put into the task. I don’t want to bust my knuckles open breaking into a safe only to find a five dollar bill, unless that five dollar bill is somehow the most beautiful five dollar bill the world has ever seen, or maybe it’s the first five dollar bill that my father ever earned at the business that supported our family through difficult times.
Ah, but there it is, sentiment again. Why are poets afraid of it? Probably because most don’t do it well; it comes off as false or preachy, immature, and it’s delivered without skill or ingenuity. Maybe it is cliché, stated in phrases we’ve heard it over and over. So make it new, as Pound said. But don’t give up the human part of the humanities. Poetry is more than mere artifice.
In a recent blog post that I will try to come back to this week, Scott Edward Anderson put it this succinctly: “Poetry should be neither a Rubik’s cube nor a road sign.” I perhaps should have quoted him and left it at that.
Nebulous Promises for the Week Ahead
I have mentioned that I want to share with you some of the many exciting things happening for National Poetry Month for both writers and readers, but there is just so much of it, and so much I’ve been catching up on myself. I will attempt to link up to a few of the folks I admire in hopes that you’ll enjoy the ride and maybe find a bit of inspiration for your own self there, whether it be to write or to enjoy the reading.
Speaking of reading, someone in one of the above discussions that I linked to had mentioned the importance of reading poetry out loud. I have done some readings in the past of poets whose work I adore (maybe a hundred and forty on YouTube, and I think more than fifty on Soundcloud). Since this is the first NPM in a while that I haven’t directly participated in the challenges, either of sharing or composing, I promise to repost a few of my favorites.
And since a dear friend of mine promises to sick the “old Nazi” Ezra Pound on me for turning it into a verb, “Poem on!”
I don’t know what Robert Frost was thinking when he jotted those words in his notes, “I have envied the four moon planet.” Or maybe he never wrote them at all. Maybe Billy Collins just made the whole thing up. I’ll have to read The Notebooks of Robert Frost to find out for sure. But it’s a lovely poem that Billy created from Frost’s idea.
And since aliens and outer space are sometimes subjects of scary movies and costumes (I’ve dressed as an alien for Halloween, haven’t you?), then maybe it’s not too much of a stretch to make “The Four Moon Planet” by Billy Collins our October 31st Thursday Love Poem. You know, it being Halloween and all, and we bloggers feeling this market-driven need to relate everything to everything else.
Come to think of it, isn’t that what poets do? I recall Billy saying as much in another poem. “The Trouble with Poetry,” I believe it was.
Aside: And while I’m thinking of it, if you managed to miss the former Poet Laureate reading, quipping, and doing poetry tricks with Stephen Colbert on the Colbert Report Tuesday night, treat yourself by clicking here.
But what’s a Thursday Love Poem, you ask? Well, let me quote myself from last Thursday, when we enjoyed the first ever Thursday Love Poem. Last week we were dumped unceremoniously by Edna St. Vincent Millay via the Thursday Love Poem feature’s flagship poem, appropriately called “Thursday.”
. . . And what should a Thursday Love Poem be here on The Dad Poet? Well, let’s face it, it’s got to be a bit unconventional. No Hallmark cards of course, and none of Shakespeare’s Sonnets. Not that your sweetheart doesn’t deserve a nice greeting card, and not they the Bard’s love poems are not a delight (come to think of it a few might actually fit in here) . . . But we have already read Robert Burns’, “my luv is like a red red rose.” Here I want to share something different, off-center, unexpected, something that resonates, but may not be what you expect from a love poem.
. . . I do not wish to act as if true love and romance in a poem is “dishonest,” as some writers claim. But for a poem to be a Thursday Love Poem it will have to look at that tenderness squinting sideways, maybe standing on its head, in order to give us a unique view, one other than what the masses have come to expect of a love poem.
In other words a Thursday Love Poem isn’t your grandmother’s love poem, baby.
And so for this Thursday Love Poem we go galactic, but subtly with the master of wit and winsomeness, Billy Collins. Perhaps I’ll make a brief comment or two below the poem’s text.
The Four-Moon Planet
I have envied the four-moon planet.
-The Notebooks of Robert Frost
Maybe he was thinking of the song
“What a Little Moonlight Can do”
and became curious about
what a lot of moonlight might be capable of.
But wouldn’t this be too much of a good thing?
and what if you couldn’t tell them apart
and they always rose together
like pale quadruplets entering a living room?
Yes, there would be enough light
to read a book or write a letter at midnight,
and if you drank enough tequila
you might see eight of them roving brightly above.
But think of the two lovers on a beach,
his arm around her bare shoulder,
thrilled at how close they were feeling tonight
while he gazed at one moon and she another.
Alright then. You have heard me defend Collins, as if he needs defending, from those who criticize his “simplicity,” using the word “accessible” as if it were a bad thing, as if erecting an electric, barbed-wire fence around an art museum were a good idea. You have heard me say a hundred times that accessibility does not equal simplicity. Neither does complexity, ambiguity, or depth of thought require linguistic word puzzles meant to lose the reader and prove how very clever and intelligent the poet is. Collins is certainly accessible, but he’s anything but simplistic.
And this poem is a prime example. It may also serve as an illustration of why I love poetry so much. Prose might have simply told us, “In matters of love we are so unknowably different from each other that we are doomed to have wildly divergent views of what our relationship actually is.” Or, “We never see each other for who we are, and nobody could ever truly know the other’s thoughts.”
This is probably all true; it might even be a revelation, but how beautifully Collins sets us up, not to tell us this, but to let us discover it ourselves in the final line, “while he gazed at one moon and she another.” He says it without ever saying it. And the result is that tiny gasp, maybe not the freezing, headless sensation Emily Dickinson described, but a tug in the gut that makes me feel something true. And it comes about from a carefully laid trap that I am glad to have fallen into, the way I am glad when Agatha Christie brilliantly shows me why I should have known all along what Miss Marple understood about the murderer. This is why I can’t get enough good poems in my life, getting slapped in the gut, liking it, and asking for more.
There is so much I could say here in commentary. I could talk about how I really am uncomfortable with the lumping together of philosophers and poets. I am uncomfortable with modern philosopher-poets who attempt to either teach or impress me with their deep difficulty of thought. I could say how so much of it seems like showing off, when there really isn’t much to show.
I could talk about how this poem illustrates why I secretly (well maybe not so secretly) despised my college philosophy professors who told their students about the paradoxes of Zeno, how there are an infinite number of points on a line, and since we cannot cross infinity, we could never cross all of the infinite points between point A. and point B., and so motion was impossible, an illusion. I could complain about how those teachers eyes lit up when they told their students these juicy conundrums of thought, how I hated them for their juvenile desire to appear smart and clever.
But really they probably were just hoping that one of their students would get practical and disagree with them, and show them why science has left such silly philosophies behind as easily as it has left flat earth thought in the ancient dust.
I could talk about how I have been re-examining Plato, thanks to my friend Ygor Raduy, giving a bit more credit to the man who wanted to keep poets out of his Republic, and yet wrote like a poet himself, a master of language and figurative speech.
Having said that I confess that just today I read Bill Moyers referring to Wendell Berry as a philosopher, and I love Wendell Berry. And there are poets who seem particularly spiritual, metaphysical. Poets like Mary Oliver, Jane Hirshfield, or William Stafford, whom I love. These poets might be called philosophers because of their subject matter. They get away with saying some things that would seem otherwise pedagogical, except that they say it so elegantly and beautifully that they cannot be dismissed.
No, it’s not them that bother me; it’s the pompous pretenders, the ones who think word-play is the same as profundity. The two can go hand in hand, and many a profound thought has been delivered more successfully by a skilled word-artist. But asking, “If god can do anything, can he create a rock so big he can’t lift it.” or “There is at least one absolute and that is that there are no absolutes,” well, such talk, to my thinking just dissolves into unproductive drivel. It’s toying with words, but not with the thoughts behind the words, much like the paradox of Zeno in Collins poem below.
When we use the language to just create nonsense and linguistic puzzles, it may be fun, like playing Sudoku with letters, but it doesn’t communicate anything about what it means to be human. And that’s what I think art is about, not just nonsense phrases. Even the nonsense of Lewis Carol’s “Jabberwocky” is anything but nonsense. There is a story there and we can feel what’s happening, even if we do not know what “slithy toves” are. But much nonsense is written that poses as poetry, and often the one who writes it thinks he or she is oh-so-clever.
Aside from philosophy and the tendency to get “teachy,” or merely obscure for the sake of being difficult, I could take off in another direction all together, and address an entirely different issue that comes up with modern poems like this. So often lately when modern poetry comes to the public’s attention, as in the recent post about HIlborn’s OCD poem, people complain that it doesn’t rhyme, or scan. They will ask what makes it a poem, rather than prose.
Ah, but this is a big subject, one that I have touched on many times on the Dad Poet, but one that I think might deserve an upcoming series to explore. Maybe part of the problem is that even in a poem like this one below by Collins (sorry, I promise, I will shut up and get to the poem shortly), it is often read as if it were prose. Despite the fact that there is a certain ebb and flow to these lines, it’s easy to read it as if it were a little bit of flash fiction.
Even though there are sounds that give it a certain music, the repeated between rhyming with amandine, for instance, or other more subtle sounds like order, waiter, dinner falling at the end of consecutive lines–despite all this music, it can be read as if it were just a short humorous story. Granted, the music is subtle; it’s not traditional. Granted, the poem is written in line form, which is not the form of prose. Still some will claim it is not a poem.
Heck even my reading turned out to be less musical than I wanted it to be. Why is that? Could it be (I remember clearly) we were taught by Mrs. Dickey in eighth grade to not sound too “sing-songy” when we read? That we didn’t need to pause at the end of lines (Even Collins says this one in his book Poetry 180), that we don’t want to sound like Shakespeare, or “a nursery rhyme?”
Oh yes, we’ve been told that the modern ear does not respond with approval toward readings that sound too “poemy.” Really. Really? So why is rap music so damn popular? I know, I know, sometimes it’s not even music, just talking to a beat. Sometimes the words are brilliant, other times they are worse than the vapid pop drivel of the latest boy band love song.
But people like it. Maybe we should stop apologizing for writing poetry. Maybe we should quit trying to fit in so that people (read here as modern pop culture) accepts us. Maybe if we wrote so well that they couldn’t help but stop and listen, or if we wrote with such originality and character at least, perhaps Washington Post columnists might stop asking, “Is poetry dead?” But then again, they probably will anyway. And you might enjoy reading articles on that topic on The Rumpus or even the Huffington Post for some thoughtful rebuttals.
So yeah, I could talk a lot here about the art involved in philosophy (though I don’t think Plato was trying to write our idea of literature. I think he would pull his hair out at being called a poet), or I could talk about the state of modern poetry, but all I wanted to do was read a poem.
And I love reading poems out loud. I love hearing other people read poems out loud, especially if it is a new experience for them. I suppose it’s much like a lover of flutes who sees someone put the instrument to their mouth for the first time. You know there are going to be some gawd-awful noises made before the music, but there will be music, and it the art will be passed on.
In the Rumpus article referenced above David Biespiel makes the argument that art itself is a messy thing. What of it? Isn’t that mess part of the glory. Let’s participate in the art now, and let history and future literature classes decide what great things might have come out of it. I am saying this more and more lately, art is too important to be left to the “professionals.”
Oh, and here’s that poem we started talking about before I went on my little ramble. Feel free to talk about whatever you’d like in the comments, this poem, poetry itself, philosophy, whatever moves you. Let’s have an artsy, poetic mess today instead of a serious scholarly essay. What’s that you say? Ah yes, I already did.
Not long after we had sat down to dinner
at a long table in a restaurant in Chicago
and were deeply engrossed in the heavy menus,
one of us—a bearded man with a colorful tie—
asked if any one of us had ever considered
applying the paradoxes of Zeno to the martyrdom of St. Sebastian.
The differences between these two figures
were much more striking than the differences
between the Cornish hen and the trout amandine
I was wavering between, so I looked up and closed my menu.
If, the man with the tie continued,
an object moving through space
will never reach its destination because it is always
limited to cutting the distance to its goal in half,
then it turns out that St. Sebastian did not die
from the wounds inflicted by the arrows.
No, the cause of death was fright at the spectacle of their endless approach.
St. Sebastian, according to Zeno, would have died of a heart attack.
I think I’ll have the trout, I told the waiter,
for it was now my turn to order,
but all through the elegant dinner
I kept thinking of the arrows forever nearing
the pale, quivering flesh of St. Sebastian
a fleet of them perpetually halving the tiny distances
to his body, tied to a post with rope,
even after the archers had packed it in and gone home.
And I thought of the bullet never reaching
the wife of William Burroughs, an apple trembling on her head,
the tossed acid never getting to the face of that girl,
and the Oldsmobile never knocking my dog into a ditch.
The theories of Zeno floated above the table
like thought balloons from the fifth century before Christ,
yet my fork continued to arrive at my mouth
delivering morsels of asparagus and crusted fish,
and after we all talked and ate and lifted our glasses,
we left the restaurant and said goodbye on the street
then walked our separate ways in the world where things do arrive,
where people get where they are going—
where the train pulls into the station in a cloud of vapor,
where geese land with a splash on the surface of the lake,
and the one you love crosses the room and arrives in your arms—
and, yes, where sharp arrows will pierce a torso,
splattering the groin and the bare feet of the saint,
that popular subject of European religious painting.
One hagiographer compared him to a hedgehog bristling with quills.