As spring comes into its full, glorious own here in the Pacific Northwest, I discovered a wonderful spring poem I had never read before.
Mary Karr posted a short poem by Philip Larkin last week on her Facebook page. In one of those interesting coincidences, I had just been encouraged to look into Larkin by my literary friend and colleague, Mark Neigh.
(You know how you discover a new word one day, and then you see it and hear it all around you the next? It was sort of like I was surrounded by Larkin all of a sudden.)
I already had Larkin’s “Collected Poems” on my bookshelf, but hadn’t read much in it. I’d never been much impressed by what little I had read of Larkin, but his spring poem really hit home. I must never have given him a proper chance. Or the timing wasn’t right.
Here it is, just 12 short, beautiful lines:
by Philip Larkin
The trees are coming into leaf
Like something almost being said;
The recent buds relax and spread,
Their greenness is a kind of grief.
Is it that they are born again
And we grow old? No, they die too.
Their yearly trick of looking new
Is written down in rings of grain.
Yet still the unresting castles thresh
In fullgrown thickness every May.
Last year is dead, they seem to say,
Begin afresh, afresh, afresh.
“A thousand bux to anybody who can explain this dopey Ashbery twaddle. He makes no sense & gets raved about by all the literati. Wins every prize. Nice guy. Waste of time. Snap out of it @NewYorker #theemperorhasnoclothes”
The poet she’s calling out is John Ashbery, who has indeed won every major American poetry honor, including the Pulitzer.
Good for Mary! This poem is an example of the opaque word sausage that gives modern poetry a bad name. I don’t mind working a little bit to understand a poem. But there needs to be a payoff, or I feel cheated. After reading “Dangerous Asylum,” my primary insight is that “well, that’s 3 minutes of my life that I will never get back.”
If the point is that life is absurd, we are all alone, and we will never be able to truly know one another, there are more beautiful, more elegant, more engaging, more efficient, and more effective ways to say it.
Mary’s Facebook post stimulated tons of comments. They ranged from gratitude to her for calling bullshit, to expressions of envy of Ashbery’s success.
One commenter blamed the whole sorry situation on the privilege of “conservative men” with “old ideas.” (Not sure that’s quite it. I’m a pretty conservative man with old ideas, and I don’t care for the poem either.)
My favorite comment: “Cool kid poetry to inspire feelings of cluelessness.”
I do not know the poet’s heart. Mary calls him a “nice guy,” but if his poetry is any indication (and by their works ye shall judge them), he’s saying “I’m smarter and more hip than you. I’m a member of an exclusive inner circle you’ll never be a part of.”
If that’s really what’s going on here, I hate it.
Now, I prefer poems that make connections, that stir up courage and hope, that evoke fear and pity.
I understand there may even be a time and place for poems of alienation, despair and disgust. At least they make me feel something interesting.
In the end, perhaps, the worst reaction a poem can get is not alienation, despair or disgust, but, rather, indifference. If you are writing to make me feel clueless, insignificant, or inferior … I will stop wasting my time on you.
I strive to write poems that would touch my own heart. You can see some examples on this blog.
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.
It begins with a young boy going with his father to the dry cleaners to pick up his grandfather’s burial suit. It proceeds with the death of his father many years later. and finally concludes with the boy, now grown, picking up his own suit from the cleaners and dredging up the old memories from the past.
This one got me.
I had already been working on a poem about my own grandfather, and I was touched by how Carver handled similar subject matter. In fact, our poems were about very similar moments in a young boy’s life, remembered years later.
I’m not claiming this poem is anything like Carver’s in much but subject matter, but I was struck by the coincidence.
Oh yeah. Both are free verse. I decided to take the net down and knock the ball around without worrying about rhyme and meter.
The Day the Call Came
The day the call came
We had just dished up the ice cream.
A special treat for a Friday farm dinner,
(Not to be confused with supper.)
Mother had made it early that morning in ice cube trays.
“Freezer ice cream,” she called it,
Vanilla, made with Junket tablets to keep it creamy,
Even as it froze.
Not as good as the real, homemade ice cream cranked by hand,
But a whole lot easier.
And America was just starting its long affair with convenience.
The call came over the telephone
Mounted on the farmhouse wall.
With two bells for eyes,
You spoke into its honking, beaklike nose.
The earpiece cradled appropriately
Where the right ear should be,
While a hand crank made a poor excuse
For a drooping left ear.
It was a party line,
So the snoopy widow woman down the road
Knew as soon as we did.
The call came, and the man on the phone
Said Grandpa had just keeled over dead
At the auction over in Poosey.
So, we all got up—Mom, Dad, Big Brother and me,
And climbed into the ’50 Ford sedan
Dad was so proud to own.
The first car he’d ever bought brand new.
By the time we got to the auction –
It was a farm sale, really —
Where the worldly possessions of one farm family
Were being sold off.
One at a time.
By the hypnotically fast-talking auctioneer.
Not as depressing as the foreclosure sales
That were all too common
Just a few years before in the Depression.
This was a voluntary sale,
But a little sad nonetheless.
Some farmer was getting too old to run the place,
And didn’t have kids—or leastwise kids who wanted to farm.
A lot of boys joined the service in those days,
Or headed to Kansas City to find work, and a little excitement,
Rather than stay and try to coax a living
Out of that hilly, rocky dirt.
The man at the auction told us
Grandpa had been standing there in the sun with everybody else.
They were just about to start the bidding on the John Deere hay rake
When he grabbed his chest and fell right over.
Years later, they told me when he was a grown man
Grandpa had gone down to the river,
And been baptized, and filled with the Holy Ghost,
With the evidence of no longer speaking in profane tongues.
For, it was well known Grandpa had been gifted
In the art of colorful language.
“He used to could cuss by note,” was how Mother put it.
But after the washing with water and the Word,
Grandpa was never heard to swear again.
I only knew him as a white-haired old man
With a merry smile, and infinite patience
With Grandma, who required it.
And that was it, really.
Nothing more to say,
Except for the understated condolences
Of the country folk.
Nothing more to do,
Except for my father,
Now lately promoted to the role of the family’s eldest male,
Who assumed the duties and made the necessary arrangements.
Although I didn’t know quite what had happened,
I felt a lurch … as something shifted beneath me …
And I was yanked one more notch forward.
By the time we got back to the house,
The ice cream had long since melted
And now was returning back to solid state,
As it curdled in the September heat.
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 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.
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.
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.