My recent Hawaii trip sent me back to the files digging through old poems. As I mentioned yesterday, being in Hawaii puts me in a haiku state of mind. Here are a few from previous trips to Hawaii.
More Hawaii Haiku
Sometimes don’t you wish
It could be like this always?
Mai tais at sunset!
Odor of mildew,
Shelves too full and disheveled.
Bookstore in Hilo.
Excited by blurs,
Cold night on Kea.
One night we visited a cousin of our friends on the Big Island. Our friend’s cousin had married a woman from Polynesia. His mother-in-law was the first to greet us, coming out of her garden. I was struck by the similarities of simple country folk, wherever they come from.
Hands full of basil,
The woman greets visitors,
So like my mother.
While we were at Hilo, a strong storm blew in from the northeast, with wonderfully big waves. At first we watched the waves from a home safely atop a high cliff overlooking the sea.
To merry clinking glasses.
The night of big waves!
We drove down to a seaside park for a closer look. Then, an especially large wave came …
When you dared the wave,
It came, all right, making us
Climb trees like monkeys.
One adventure involved a very long hike through the Kilauea volcano park. It was like another world.
Lava and cinder,
Much more than I’d imagined,
Lava and cinder.
Warming themselves by steam vents
Not that this is a category with a lot of tough competition. I cannot say I can remember anything from any commencement address I’ve ever heard.
One exception: Sen. Thomas Eagleton spoke at my high school graduation and told us impatient about-to-be-hippies-and-rebels to “work for change, but work within the system.” Advice we promptly went out and ignored.
Likely the only reason I remembered this: a couple of years later George McGovern picked Eagleton to be his vice presidential running mate in the 1972 election.
When the press dredged up records that Eagleton had been treated for depression McGovern declared he stood behind his running mate “1000 percent.” But a couple of days later Democrat party leaders got to McGovern and convinced him that Eagleton was a big liability, the idealistic McGovern dropped him.
Working within the system didn’t really wok out for Eagleton all that well. Or for McGovern. He went on to get trounced by Richard Nixon in one of the most lopsided presidential elections in American history.
Commencement speeches are notorious for bland bomfoggery and inane clichés.
I can’t even remember who spoke at my college commencement. Likewise for any other graduations I’ve attended as a guest.
But I’ll wager that the Syracuse class of 2015 and their loved ones will long remember Mary’s little talk.
She ends her speech with a tribute to her mentor and benefactor from her own undergraduate days, Professor Walter Mink, of Macalester College. She says he inspired her to teach college. But he did much more. A generous and wise man, Mink could see into the souls of his students and give them what they needed.
In Mary’s case, Mink and his wife gave her understanding and encouragement until she began to find her way. (In Mary’s third installment of her memoir series, Lit, she details the many remarkable kindnesses lavished on her by the Minks, ranging from outfitting this poor Texas girl with warm clothes to withstand the bitter Minnesota winters to persuading her to get counseling.)
In the speech, Mary tells an interesting anecdote about a physiological psychology class taught by Mink. During my time at Mac, which overlapped with Mary’s I took that same class. Professor Mink was a wonderful teacher and a compassionate man.
(He was so beloved that three of his students formed a punk rock band and named their group “Walt Mink.” He was that inspiring.)
One of our major lab assignments that semester was to implant electrodes in the brain of a lab rat. The plan was to stimulate various parts of the brain with electric current and record the behavior.
Each team of students was given a rat. I named mine Sparky. We had to do all of the prep on the rat ourselves, which meant giving the rat a shot to anesthetize it. (I’m deathly afraid of needles.) When the rat was safely numb and groggy, we were to secure its head in a device that closely resembled a toy vise grip.
Then came the fun part.
We were to use a scalpel to slice open the rat’s scalp, pry back the skin, and then drill tiny holes through the skull to create access points for the electrodes. I didn’t realize that the skull of a rat is only about as thick as an egg shell.
So, as I was drilling away, the bit broke through the skull and sank deep into the poor creature’s brain. Poor Sparky. His brain certainly got stimulated!
As his little arms and legs were jerking back and forth in a seizure, Dr. Mink rushed over assuring me that the rat could not feel a thing and that he would be okay. He extracted the drill and helped me patch up Sparky and get the electrodes properly implanted, the mounting glued to the skull, and the scalp sewn up around the mount.
But poor Sparky never was quite right. Our brain experiments on him produced some very strange results that semester.
Let’s just say I quickly discovered I was not created to do anything remotely medical, or anything requiring fine motor skills.
But I want to make it very clear: I was NOT Mary Karr’s lab partner. If you read her speech, you’ll understand why I emphasize this point.
I’m sure you’ll agree that when it comes to selecting a commencement speaker, this speech makes a strong argument for considering hiring a poet to do the job.
I’ve been getting a lot of suggestions about poems and poets to feature in this blog. Thank you all. I’ve discovered some great poetry and rediscovered some that I had failed to appreciate earlier.
The latest is “Neutral Tones” by Thomas Hardy. This recommendation comes from someone who seems to be somewhat of a Hardy fan. You know who you are.
“Neutral Tones” is definitely well crafted, but is it ever a sad and depressing poem!
Hardy is writing about a remembered meeting of lovers that spelled the imminent end of their relationship. As the couple stands by a pond in winter, it becomes increasingly certain that the love is dead. It is as if the whole world, the pond, the trees, the fallen leaves, and even the sun confirm that it’s over.
The leaves “had fallen from an ash, and were grey.”
The woman looks at the writer of the poem, but he feels her eyes on him are “as eyes that rove over tedious riddles of years ago.
Even the woman’s smile is described as “the deadest thing,” and compared to an “ominous bird a-wing” passing by.
All pretty grim, dismal stuff. No color. No warmth. No sign of hope, and no relief.
The only comfort — and it is cold comfort — is that the man has gained the knowledge that “loves deceives.”
Hardy wrote “Neutral Tones” in 1867, when he was 27. One theory is that this poem was written about his cousin, Tryphena Sparks, with whom he had a tempestuous love affair. Not long afterwards, he fell in love with Emma Gifford, whom he later married.
Others have written extensively about how Hardy uses the poet’s craft to establish the heartbreaking atmosphere of the poem. So I won’t go into detail here.
But Hardy knows what he is doing and uses language, meter and metaphor to create an aching sense of loneliness and despair.
I had a friend who once made a random observation.
He said, “You know, there comes a point when old people just stop buying clothes.” I had never thought about it before, but he had a point. I thought about that single strand of insight.
One thing led to another and it eventually led to this poem. Yet another experiment with free verse.
There’ll come a day …
There’ll come a day when I shall no longer buy clothes.
I’ll eat fried chicken and biscuits smothered in bacon gravy
And wash it down with bourbon, and smoke a cigar.
And I’ll tell the waitress a joke and she’ll blush and she’ll scold.
And it will be alright.
And on that day, I’ll cancel the newspaper,
Or maybe just stop sending them my money,
Unless they beat me to it and go out of business first.
I’ll drink strong coffee and stir in heavy cream
And if I want, I’ll stay up late and sleep ’til noon
And I’ll go outside without a hat and walk on the grass
And turn my face to feel the sun
And I’ll give my cash to bums and beggars,
And make a trip to Goodwill,
And bring my college books,
And the suits I wore for business.
But I will keep my poetry,
And my old Bible.
And my photographs of you.
To remind me of all I know,
Or ever need to know,
Of truth, of beauty, and of love.
I must say … Raymond Carver is growing on me. Thanks to some literary friends, I overcame my prejudice against poets who “play with the net down” and write in free verse.
At first I was put off by Carver’s early focus on his alcoholism. But, after sticking with it, I’m warming to his honesty and humanity.
He can take a sliver of a memory and spin it into a little short story in the form of a free-verse poem. It’s not surprising, I suppose, that Carver is most well known as a short story writer.
His poems are little mini-short stories.
I’m also appreciating Carver’s blue collar roots. I’m not sure I should say he celebrates his blue collar roots. It just is, and he doesn’t shy away from it.
I’ve read that he left the Iowa State Workshop because he was having trouble fitting in with the “upper-middle-class milieu” at the school. And although his wife-at-the-time successfully lobbied for him to be given a second chance by comparing his struggles to Tennessee Williams’ difficult experience with the program 30 years earlier, Carver eventually dropped out with no degree.
I’ve known what it is like to go from blue collar roots in a small town to the jungle of an academic arena, and that’s a story for another day.
But, Carver has my empathy.
I’ve also come to appreciate how Carver can spin a little story and — BAM — just nail you with a feeling or an observation that leaves you pondering and pondering. He’s open and honest to a fault.
Whether he’s writing about getting letters from his kids asking for money, or about him committing adultery, you can be cocksure he’s telling you the truth.
I love, too, how his childhood in the American Northwest gave him insight into nature.
While I now live in the Northwest, I didn’t grow up here. I did grow up in the country in Missouri, so we have some shared experiences.
For the first few years of my life, I grew up on a farm. Here is a story of one memory from that time.
I heard them long before I saw them
Like a cacophony of oncoming clown cars.
Rising up out of the valley
And breaking over the Douglas firs.
The biggest formation I’d ever seen,
A magnificent wedge of geese all headed somewhere fast.
There must have been a hundred of them
Flying so low they went by just-like-that
With two hundred wings pumping urgently in unison.
And then they were gone
With just a fading honking echo left behind.
Was it a flock like that, dear brother,
That enticed you to run out of the barn door
That evening so long ago, shotgun in hand,
Thinking you might have a chance at bagging one?
Mom and I were up at the house making cookies,
And I remember hearing eerie wails and noises
Coming from the dark outside
And laughing, thinking it must be some strange animal
Making its strange animal sounds.
But when the cries went on and on
Mom got worried and went to look.
It could have been worse, you know.
You could have blown your head off,
You big klutz.
As it was, you only tripped over the threshold
And broke your elbow, which was bad enough,
So bad you couldn’t wrangle open the barnyard gate,
And so bad it made you moan like a dying beast.
But we drove you all the way to Cameron that night
To find a doctor who could set the bone.
And you got a cast and it healed up mostly,
And though you’d live another 60 years or so,
You never would be able to straighten out that arm.
You did your best to teach me how to hunt
But I never was much for killing things,
Yet … any time I hear wild geese approaching
I still run to where I can get a clear line of sight,
If only to shoot them with my eyes.