Playing tennis with the net down

Playing tennis with the net down
We don’t need no stinking nets!

Robert Frost once famously said “writing free verse is like playing tennis with the net down.”

Although this has been the dominant form of poetry for — um — like a hundred years now, I’ve always been more inclined to playing with the net up.

Not trying to restart long-settled fights or open old wounds. I’m just saying I was introduced from a young age to poetry with meter and rhyme, so that’s what I’ve gravitated towards over the years.

So shoot me.

But I must say, Mary Karr may make a convert of me.

Mary Karr
Mary Karr plays tennis with the net down

Mary Karr is best know for her memoirs, Liar’s Club, Cherry, and Lit. These are wonderful, funny and profound books.  They are credited with — or depending on your point of view — blamed for sparking the current trend of confessional memoirs.

But she would consider herself a poet first, and she has a good point.

Full disclosure:  I went to school with Mary back in the 70s.  And by “going to school with” I mean I was at the same college at the same time for a year or so.

She actually dated — or hung out with .. or whatever we called it back then — one of my roommates back at an off-campus house near Macalester College in St. Paul.

It was a pretty arty scene.  We had musicians and songwriters and artists and aspirants all living in close quarters and striving to find their voices.

This roommate of mine was a freeloading squatter who lived in our attic.  But he was a talented musician, so we gave him a free pass.  He appears on the early pages of Lit, the “Missouri cowboy,” who never seemed to lack female attention.

My primary impression of Mary back in those days:  “This girl is trouble.”

I was most certainly right.  And she would probably agree.

Later she would date David Foster Wallace, and reportedly inspire him to write Infinite Jest.  Or at least, make it good.

But enough with the name dropping.

Mary is one heck of a poet.  Exhibit A:  a poem called “Suicide’s Note: An Annual.”  Pretty universally regarded as being about Wallace after he killed himself.

It’s almost enough to make me consider taking down the net.

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Lamentations

Jeremiah
This proud and stiff-necked people shall not stand

Reading T.S. Eliot has had at least one effect. I’ve taken a break from writing about love.

Eliot wrote about the big things. Faith. Despair. The sweep of history. The spirit of the age.  Weaving in references to the best expressions of Western civilization … and beyond. Whatever you think of him, he was a serious fellow.

Not claiming this little poem is like Eliot, or in the same league. But it does come out of a heart and mind that has been reading him. It’s not a “silly love song.” It’s a stab at being serious.

Lamentations

A worm works through the apple of us all,
A mold grows slowly over all our work,
Our vaunted gleaming towers all will fall
As delegates palaver jackals lurk.

Anesthetized within our paneled homes,
Believing what has been will always be,
With weariness we author countless tomes
That give not wisdom nor help us to see.

A dust has settled over all the land,
Our wise men jabber loudly on the wall.
As good is named for evil, good is banned,
In silent shadows meanwhile serpents crawl.
This proud and stiff-necked people shall not stand.
The tribes of earth shall marvel at its fall

.

How hard should this be?

T.S. eliot was honored with a 22-cent U.S. postage stamp
T.S. Eliot

I’m really trying to like T.S. Eliot. But mostly because I think I should.

People I respect swear by him. I’ve always found him fussy, obscure and generally not worth the effort.

Now, on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of his death, Eliot seems to be everywhere. He’s got me surrounded!

Then I read where one of my favorite living writers, Mary Karr, calls Eliot her “Secret Boyfriend,” and I think I need to do more to overcome my benighted condition and check this guy out.

This is the same Mary Karr who wrote her famous essay, “Against Decoration.” As is says on the back of her book of verse, “The Devil’s Tour,” she calls her own poems “‘humanist poems,’ written for everyday readers rather than an exclusive audience — poems that do not require an academic explication to be understood.”

Amen to that, Mary! But how am I to square that with your literary crush on Eliot? He’s the guy who added seven pages of explanatory notes a the end of “The Wasteland.” Notes that really only help if you’ve recently brushed up on your Latin, Italian, French and German!

I realize there are gaps in my education big enough to drive a tanker through.  So the problem must be with me, not Eliot.  So I dip my toe in, gingerly.

He’s got some good lines.  Memorable lines.

April is the cruelest month,

and …

This is the way the world ends/This the way the world ends/This is the way the world ends/Not with a bang but with a whimper.

Early in “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” he gives us a fantastic extended metaphor of the yellow fog as an animal “rubbing its back on the window panes.”

But then he goes and opens up a poem with this eight-syllable-one-word line:  Polyphiloprogenitive.

Which, sends me scurrying for a dictionary.  And by “scurrying for a dictionary,” I mean I Google the word.  Apparently it means “extremely prolific,” which does not help me much in apprehending the meaning of Mr. Eliot’s poem.

And then there’s his aggravating habit of introducing a poem with a quote from another author.  In French.  Or Latin.  Or Greek.

To the casual observer, it would appear that Mr. Eliot was trying to reduce his audience down to the smallest number possible.  Today, that number must be even smaller, made up of just the handful of professors who to have miraculously managed to get a classical education before our institutions of higher learning went all soft in the head.

I do not want to sound like one of those Know-Nothings who mistrust anyone with book-learnin.’  But I know from my day job that if you want to get your stuff read and understood, you must write clearly and remove the friction for the reader.

Can it be possible to write profound poetry and have people understand it at the same time?

I think I’ll start with “The Hollow Men” and see how it goes.  It’s short and written exclusively in English.  I think I’ve got a fair shot as extracting some meaning from it.  My goal is to gain a little momentum, move on the “The Wasteland,” and then be strong enough for “Ash-Wednesday” by the time we get to week of Easter this year.

We’ll see if my patience holds out.

Love poems for grown-ups, part two

Dusty wine bottles
“Each vintage has its period of gold”

“We’ll Sell No Wine”

“We’ll sell no wine before its time,” we’re told.
The fat and famous spokesman made it clear,
Each vintage has its period of gold.
(You must assess the pressing and the year.)

So, likewise, for each vintage comes a time
The point past which there’s no return at all.
Decay and oxidation work their crime,
And turn your sweetest nectar into gall.

So come, my dear, what are we waiting for?
Our cellar holds a few more bottles still.
Pick one and brush away the dust before
Time turns its contents back to must — time will.
Cast off our caution and our clothes and pour,
And drink with joy until we’ve had our fill.

How now, haiku!

Haiku
Can we really say we understand haiku?

My friend and colleague Seth La Tour is a brave soul. He has started a blog “one poem every day,” which is pretty much what it sounds like.

He writes a new poem every day and posts it. Mostly he writes haiku.

I’m not sure I get haiku. By which I mean I really don’t get haiku. It comes from a cultural tradition so different from my own that I hesitate to claim any knowledge.

But, every now and then reading haiku, I get a glimpse of something … a whiff … a hint.

Seth wrote one a few days ago that gave me that twinge:

old, red butter dish/

doing your one job so well/

on the countertop

Something about its directness, its simplicity and its sheer concreteness gave me that feeling I get when I think I have apprehended the best of the haiku from Japan.  For me, it’s a little like catching a glimpse of something in peripheral vision.  When you look at it directly, it’s gone.

There was a significance in this simple moment.  There was “something” the poet perceived and recorded.

I sensed the same sort of thing when experiencing a Japanese Tea Ceremony.  It was so simple, yet precise.  There was something there.  But I couldn’t quite apprehend it.  (Then my knees started to ache and I had to stand up.)

We know that haiku master Basho also followed the Way of Tea, so there is clearly a deep connection.

I have tried haiku, but am not satisfied I have the clarity and tranquility required.  Here’s one I didn’t burn:

As night turns to day

Summer’s last full moon slips down

Making not a sound

Love poems for grown ups

John Donne
John Donne

Today, on the Eve of St. Valentine’s Day, I want to share a new love poem of mine with you.  But first, bear with me while I tell you about a poet and a poem that played a part in shaping it.

One of my favorite love poems of all time is John Donne’s “To His Mistress Going to Bed.”

It manages to be both funny and sexy at the same time.

Donne was a complex guy. He was both a poet and a priest. His verse could be mischievous and amorous, but more often was spiritual and somber.

Even if you haven’t read his poetry, you’ve surely heard some of his lines, among the most famous in English literature: “No man is an island,” and “never send for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee.”

Born into a Roman Catholic family in England when that status alone could get you killed, he stubbornly clung to the faith of his youth … until he didn’t. Then he converted and became an Anglican cleric.

It was said that when he was a young man, “he spent much of his considerable inheritance on women, literature, pastimes, and travel.” The rest, I suppose, he spent foolishly.

Today, when hardly anything is forbidden, I find Donne’s 400-year-old love poem quaintly racy–in a wholesome sort of way.  I’m not a prude, but I have no patience for literature meant only to shock.   When I open a book of verse and see the writer spewing obscenities and graphic descriptions just to show he—or she–can, my immediate reaction is: “Why don’t you try being interesting?  Amuse me!”

I enjoy love poems for grown ups.  Especially now, having cultivated a marriage through many seasons, I am keenly aware of just how precious love can be.  And, having reached a certain age and having witnessed the deaths of parents, brothers, and classmates, I’m not taking anything for granted.

So today, I submit this grown-up love poem for your consideration.

I must give credit where credit is due.  I most certainly stole an idea from Donne, when he strung together his series of prepositions in his “Mistress” poem.  When I got to certain spot in my own poem, there was really no better way to finish it than to string together a few of Donne’s prepositions.

Late Summer’s Sun
 
Late summer’s sun has baked the grass to brown.
The days grow shorter with each passing day,
Soon, autumn’s chill will make the leaves fall down.
All of this aching beauty will decay.

And yet I love the shadows’ slanting trace,
The once green grain gone golden in its rows,
And how I love the lines etched in your face.
It’s funny, as love ripens how it grows.

The number of our days we do not know.
No sleeper knows if he will ever wake.
So come, let’s join above, between, below.
My dear, let’s cause our fragile clay to quake.
Let us make love as if it’s our last go.
Let us embrace like dawn will never break.