Poem in protest of spring

Late snowfall

COME GENTLE SNOW

Come gentle snow and cloak the ground,
Shroud budding branches all around,
Let not one scent of spring be found,
Make flowers wait.

Come frost and freeze the throbbing juice,
Break March’s short and shaky truce,
No sprout nor songbird yet aloose,
Let spring be late.

Come wind and make the oak leaves hiss,
When they descend no one will miss
Their brittle shade — no artifice
Can bring them back.

Come night and steal the season’s gain;
The verdure will begin to wane
Despite the wealth of easy rain
If it stays black.

Come sleep and shield me from the past,
Help me forget her I loved last,
Wrap safely me in sanctums vast,
Away from pain.


NOTES: We haven’t had that wonderful March snowstorm here in Western Washington yet this year.  So I’ll have to settle for a photo from last year.

We had some snow in late February, but I’m still pulling for a blizzard in March.

You see, I’m allergic to March here — the alder and cedar pollen are not kind to me.

Nearly 40 years ago when I wrote this poem protesting spring, I was an unrequited, tragic romantic. O woe was me!  I thought I’d never be happy again.  Of course, I was wrong.

If I can just make it through March to April, I should be fine.

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Memento Mori Free Verse

Sappington Cemetery

Old Cemetery

That day we ditched our duties at the music contest,
And drove to the old cemetery out by Arrow Rock,
The one with the mossy tombs above the ground,
Like down in New Orleans.
And it was even better because it was like we were playing hooky,
Only there were no classes,
Just that we’d volunteered to welcome the kids from other schools,
And help them find their rooms.
It was expected that we’d show up and do our civic duty,
But we figured they’d never notice we were missing.
We heard the call of other tunes,
And we had other demands that day to serve.
It was coming down one of those warm spring rains,
The air and everything was wet and willing,
It was the middle of the day but no one would be driving by,
And, even if they had, the old Ford’s windows were so fogged up
That no one could ever see what was going on inside.
In school, we’d learned how the doctor buried there
In the grandest tomb of all had made his fortune and his fame
selling quinine to cure malaria,
Made it possible for pioneers to settle in the boggy bottomlands,
And for America to finish where the French had failed
at digging the Panama Canal,
Opening up a passage that had never before been penetrated.
(In another class, we’d hear it wouldn’t be the last time
We would have to bail out the hapless Frenchmen.)
And though the aging tombs beckoned us to come and learn,
And contemplate the weakness of our flesh,
We’d have to take our teachers’ word for it.
That day we never got out of the car …
++++++it was raining so hard …
And we had other geography to explore,
And history of our own to write.


Notes:  Growing up in my Missouri hometown, I heard stories like this actually happened. This one may or may not be partly true.  Names have been redacted to protect the guilty.

The medieval Christian tradition had an ascetic practice called memento mori, meaning, “Remember that you will die.” The monk might keep some object, such as a skull, to remind him that life is transient, and that death is inevitable. The idea was to focus the soul on things that really mattered.

I’m not sure, but some of the poems I write might serve as my own personal memento mori.

Winter Haiku

Royall Lyme after shave

Even in winter
one whiff stirs a remembrance
of spring long ago.


Notes: I’ve heard that the sense of smell is the strongest trigger of memories. I’m not sure that is a scientific fact, but anecdotally it sure seems so.

The odor of a particular janitorial product can transport me back to the polished hallways of Southeast Grade School. A hint of Lily of the Valley can put me right back in the shoes of the little boy who was me tending a flower garden with my mother.

The smell of fresh baked bread lands me in my grandmother’s house, playing with my cousins, anticipating the first bite of that still-hot bread, smeared with homemade butter and smothered in honey from the comb.

And the smell need not be pleasant. Step into a campground outhouse, and I’m right back on my childhood farm.  We weren’t the poorest farmers in the county — we had a two-seater.

And that reminds me. The smell of burning paper brings back the recollection of the out-of-date Sears & Roebuck catalogs, kept along with a box of kitchen matches in that old outhouse as a sort of forerunner to the modern room deodorizer.  You just rip out a page, roll it tight, and light it.  Everything smells much better than before!

Last month while on vacation, I was delighted to find a fragrance from the past at an Brooks Brothers outlet mall store. The bright green of the Royall Lyme bottle caught my eye almost immediately.

The heavy metal crown-shaped lid felt the same.  The faux-Old English font looked the same. And when I sprayed on a bit of the fragrance, I was taken back to the mid 1960s again.

The high school speech and debate club had boarded a school bus and driven to Kansas City for a weekend field trip.  The stated educational rationale was to take in a film or two that were not available in my rural hometown. But it was really pretty much a junket, a good excuse to get out of town and hang out in the big city.

Some of the details are fuzzy, but I think we stayed at an old Howard Johnson’s out on I-70 and Noland Road. Then the next day, with our teacher, Mr. Washburn, driving the bus, we ventured into the city.  I think the big movie most people wanted to see was Cat Ballou, which would most likely date this event in the spring of ’67.

We had no way of knowing it, but that summer in San Francisco would see the “Summer of Love,” with the full flowering of the hippie subculture. This was the era of “be-ins,” sex, drugs, and rock & roll.

But that was all to come later. Back in Kansas City, we caught a matinee, which I remember nothing about.  We ate at the Italian Gardens, at its old location on Baltimore Avenue, my first experience with ethnic food. The spumoni was redolent. It must have been soaked in some type of booze, which I had also never tasted before. A classic spumoni in an old school Italian restaurant can sometimes take me back in time.

But the most memorable experience happened when we stopped into a fancy men’s clothing store. I didn’t have a lot of spending money, so I couldn’t afford the clothes. But I found a bottle of Royall Lyme cologne in my price range and bought it.

I had a crush on a girl, and there were signs she liked me too. We sat next to each other on the bus ride back home. I wore the lime-scented fragrance.

As I walked home from the school building by myself, I recall humming Simon and Garfunkle’s 59th Street Bridge Song, with its signature line, “Feelin’ groovy.”  (From the first album I would buy for myself, incidentally.)

The sun was warm. The birds were chirping. My feet floated above the sidewalk. God was in His heaven. Everything was right with the world.

And all was infused with lime.

Speaking strictly for me, I could have died then and there.

As for peak experiences, this may seem fairly tame. But when you think about it, how many times in your life seem absolutely perfect?

I can only think of a handful.

The perfection was fleeting, of course. It always is. We went back to classes on Monday. The school year ended soon. The puppy-love romance fizzled. The summer was spent detasseling corn and bucking hay. Come mid-August and we had to endure the grueling two-a-day football practices. School started up again. I caught a cold. The entire football season I sat on the ice-cold aluminum bench as a third stringer.

Everything was not groovy.

But that one springtime, lime-soaked day was a glimpse. A foretaste of something pure and good and innocent and perfect.

My generation would try, just a couple of years later to take the Summer of Love to the next level and seize that innocence by force.  At Woodstock, half a million young people would head to Yasgur’s Farm and try to “get back to the garden,” but would wind up wallowing in trash and mud instead.

I read about Woodstock in TIME magazine. I wanted to believe in it. But I had just been blessed with indoor plumbing and central heating a few years before. Something about the filth and the litter and the discomfort just didn’t jibe with what paradise was supposed to be like for me.

Then, in December of 1969, all the false hope of the Summer of Love and Woodstock would be slammed shut at the Altamont Raceway Festival Free Concert. While the Rolling Stones played Sympathy for the Devil, a fight broke out.  And while they played Under My Thumb, a Hells Angels security guard stabbed a stoned-out and unruly concert-goer to death.

Although I didn’t realize it at the time, the counterculture had peaked, and I had pretty much missed it.

We were a long way from “all  is groovy.”

By the time I would head  off to college in 1970, eager to plunge into the counterculture, it had already been exposed as a false hope and an empty dream. I felt vaguely cheated, like I’d arrived late at the party.

In 1973, Van Morrison would capture the contradictions and the corruption of the hippie movement in his song The Great Deception on the album Hard Nose the Highway:

Did you ever hear about the great deception
Well the plastic revolutionaries take the money and run
Have you ever been down to love city
Where they rip you off with a smile
And it don’t take a gun

— by Van Morrison

But the idea of paradise persists. And the scent of limes still brings it back.

 

 

 

 

 

Vanishing Act

Unjustly overlooked poet Weldon Kees

Made another discovery recently, this one thanks to my old friend and schoolmate, the photographer and artist (and poet) John Marquand.

John turned me on to his favorite poet, Weldon Kees, an important, but overlooked poet from the last century. Kees really hasn’t gotten the attention his fans think he deserves, possibly because his output was small.

He was a modern day Renaissance Man, who in addition to writing poetry, was a novelist, short story writer, painter, literary critic, jazz pianist, and filmmaker.

Kees’ career was cut short when he disappeared in 1955 at age 41, a presumed suicide. His car was found near the approach to the Golden Gate Bridge, but his body was never found.

Kees captured the despair of modern urban life in the 20th Century, and expressed in fresh ways.

Perhaps the best examples of this is his series of four “Robinson” poems about an outwardly successful, but inwardly despairing modern man.

One of these is perhaps his mostly widely known poem, “Aspects of Robinson.” This essay by one of Kees’ champions, the poet Dana Gioia, gives a far better explanation of the poem than I ever could write.

If you’re interested in this sort of thing, it’s worth your time to read the whole essay, but I’ll include a tidbit:

“This poem demonstrates how Kees transformed the alienation and vacuity of contemporary life into lyric poetry. It does not offer readers comfort or escape. Kees did not transcend the problems of his century with a religious or a political faith. He did not elude the vulgarization of public culture by stealing away into an aesthetic realm. What he offered was uncompromising honesty, the transforming shock of recognition.” — Dana Gioia

It would very well be that the Kees’ uncompromising honesty combined with his inability to find redemption amidst a fallen culture finally led to his demise.

Some have speculated that Kees’ anti-hero, Robinson, was named after E.A. Robinson, the earlier American poet, who enjoyed a bit of a revival after Simon and Garfunkle adapted one of his poems into a famous song in the 1960s — “Richard Cory.”

There are certainly similarities between Kees’ Robinson, and Robinson’s Richard Corey.  But Kees’ Robinson is much more of a world-weary man of the mid-century.  Robinson’s Cory was a member of the sated upper class at the turn of the century.

More intriguing is the theory that Kees’ Robinson is really an aspect of the poet himself.

 

Inspirational Doggerel

False Hawaii missile attack alert

A wise man once opined
That nothing so focuses the mind
Quite as much as knowing
That you’ll be hanged in the morning.

And while that may be true,
That knowledge is not really new.
Another wise man said
Soon or late we all wind up dead.


NOTES:  I can’t imagine what it must have been like in Hawaii Saturday when the alert of an incoming ballistic missile was issued by mistake.  Hopefully, all of the sober reflection that occurred during those tense minutes will bear some positive fruit.

 

“Brothers, I Loved You All”

Hayden Carruth
Hayden Carruth

One of my literary-minded friends has introduced me to the America poet Hayden Carruth, who lived from 1921 to 2008.

I’m not sure how I could have gone so long and gotten so old without finding him.  (Just another example of the gaping holes in my education, I guess.)

Carruth is growing on me.

Like Robert Frost, he moved to the Vermont countryside and learned to how to farm.  Carruth’s poems about some of his country neighbors are vivid, precise character sketches that remind me of the country folk I knew in my youth.

Like Frost, Carruth did a bit of teaching to help pay the bills.  He was aware of the looming shadow Frost cast over later Vermont poets, and he played with it a bit in some of his poems.

But he seems to be ornerier than Frost.  And more down to earth.  He seems to be a common man.  But a wicked smart, extremely well-read common man.

He dwells at that intersection between classic poets from an earlier age who paid attention to meter and rhyme, and the moderns of the last century, who reveled in the free innovation for the sake of innovation.

His poem, Late Sonnet, written later in his life, is one of his most interesting, I’ve read yet.

LATE SONNET

by Hayden Carruth

For that the sonnet no doubt was my own true
singing and suchlike other song, for that
I gave it up half cold-heartedly to set
my lines in a fashion that proclaimed its virtue
original in young arrogant artificers who
had not my geniality nor voice and yet
their fashionableness was persuasive to me,–what
shame and sorrow I pay!
+++++++++++++++++++++And that I knew
that beautiful hot old man Sidney Bechet
and heard his music often but not what he
was saying, that tone, phrasing, and free play
of feeling mean more than originality,
these being the actual qualities of song.
Nor is it essential to be young.

I read this as the confession of a poet who abandoned the craft he knew in his youth to pursue the fashionable trends of modern style.  He contrasts the pretentiousness of modern poets — the “arrogant artificers” — with the pure horn playing of jazzman Sidney Bechet, who — according to Carruth — emphasized feeling over originality.

Carruth developed this idea more fully in an interview published in Contemporary Authors.

“When I was young and starting to write poetry seriously and to investigate the resources of modern poetry, as we called it then, we still felt beleaguered; modern poetry was still considered outrageous by most of the people in the publishing business and in the reading audience at large.

“We still spoke in terms of the true artists and the philistines. We felt that if we could get enough people to read T. S. Eliot and Wallace Stevens and e. e. cummings and William Carlos Williams and other great poets of that period, then something good would happen in American civilization. We felt a genuine vocation, a calling, to try and make this happen. And we succeeded. Today thousands of people are going to colleges and attending workshops and taking courses in twentieth-century literature.

“Eliot and Stevens are very well known, very well read; and American civilization has sunk steadily, progressively, further and further down until most of the sensible people are in a state of despair. It’s pretty obvious that good writing doesn’t really have very much impact on social events or national events of any kind. We hope that it has individual impact, that readers here and there are made better in some way by reading our work. But it’s a hope; we have no proof.”

Carruth has helped me put my finger on what has bugged me about so much of modern poetry for a long time. I couldn’t quite define it until now. But after reading this, it has come into focus.

In the secular despair of the 20th Century, artists sought to take the place of God, who had been declared dead by the wise men of the age.

As Carruth said, “if we could get enough people to read T. S. Eliot and Wallace Stevens and e. e. cummings and William Carlos Williams and other great poets of that period, then something good would happen in American civilization.”

Cultural restoration through poetry!  Moral improvement through exposure to art.

The divine revelation of the Bible had been debunked courtesy of Darwin and Freud and others, faith had been undermined, and the vacuum that was created was seeking to fill itself with the work of artists and poets.

I would submit that this is much too big an assignment for poetry.

Don’t get me wrong.  I hold a pretty high view of poetry.  It can do a lot.  It can inspire, comfort and bless a soul.  It can express rich and deep feeling in elevated language. But I think the artistes of the last century reached too far.

My hypothesis is that this poetic overreach was responsible for much mischief — and a lot of unreadable poetry in the 20th Century.

Lest  you think I am making this up, Stevens was explicit about his intention to replace God with poetry.

According to Poetry Foundation, Stevens maintained that art was “the new deity in a theologically deficient age. Abstraction is necessary, Stevens declares, because it fosters the sense of mystery necessary to provoke interest and worship from humanity.”

I find Stevens’ abstraction cold and heartless — and frankly boring.

I disagree with his premise and his conclusion.  Just because Stevens didn’t believe in God didn’t mean that God was dead. (Please note: this theory is still under construction.)

If God is not dead, then poetry does not need to strive to be something it is not.  It does not need to replace divine revelation.  Since God is not dead, poetry can slip comfortably back into its proper role.

The poet can cease stop trying to take the place of God and settle back into the role of a human created in the image of God, creating beauty that reflects the beauty of God and his creation.  And also telling the truth about the tragedy of how the creation has fallen.

Feel free to check out the blog for some decidedly un-modern poetry…

 

Full Moon Haiku

The Super Moon of 2017

Autumn’s last full moon
illuminates my night walk.
No fear of stumbling.


Notes:  The only supermoon of 2017 just happened Sunday night.  We had a bit of fog that — instead of obscuring the light of the moon — only amplified it.  It was so bright you could detect some colors.