Poem for Poetry Month: A Conceit

As the oyster forms the pearl, so the poet pens the verse

As the Oyster Forms the Pearl

As the oyster forms the pearl,
So the poet pens the verse
As balm for the current ache
Born out of the ancient curse.

As the oyster feels compelled
To shellac the sandy grain,
So the poet feels the urge
To transmogrify the pain.

So the pearl grows rich and round
As its luster covers the sand.
So the verse unseen takes form
In its way, designed unplanned.

Sad the pearl that lies unseen
In the depths of the murky sea.
Sad the verse that dies unheard
In the heart clandestinely.

So the diver frees the pearl,
Breaks the stony shell apart.
So the poet frees the verse
Ripped out of his broken heart.

(2015)


There’s a pretty spot along Fjord Drive in Poulsbo, Washington, called Oyster Plant Park. I don’t know the details of the history, but if you were going to put up an plant to process and can oysters it seems like good place.

Liberty Bay is shallow, and at low tide, it reveals a large expanse of shoreline covered with shellfish.

The first time I walked along the shore I was puzzled by the way oyster shells were littered all about the surrounding neighborhood. It looked like it has been raining oysters. Shells in the street. Shells in yards. Shells on the roofs of houses.

I determined that the hungry gulls must have figured out how to snatch the oysters from the shore, fly to a proper height, and drop the unfortunate mollusks so they would crack open. Brutal but effective.

That place sparked a metaphor, which turned into this extended metaphor of a poem, which, as my high school English teacher Paul Hagedorn reminded me, is properly called a “conceit.”

Cold Autumn Poem

Autumn scene

Autumn Song

Afternoon in late September
Shows us signs we both can follow,
Shadows where there were no shadows
Days before, encroach on meadows,
Turning brittle brown and yellow.
Six o’clock’s a dying ember
Causing grown men to remember
Another fall’s disturbing echo.

When, unnoticed, fell the first leaves,
Yellow elm leave tired of sunshine?
Who suspected seeing such ease
When the first chill stunned the green vine?
Is embarrassment the reason
Sumac’s crimson hides its poison?
When was foliage last so supine?

Rainy night in mid-October
Brings the icy confirmation —
Twigs encased in shiny coffins
Clenched in cold that never softens.
Even daylight’s ministration
Alters no repose so sober
As the sleep of mid-October,
Sleep of spreading desolation.


(1979)

Notes:  Took a walk this evening and it finally felt cold for the first time.  Cold enough to pull this old poem out, dust it off, and trot it out again.

Written years ago and far away, when I lived in a much different climate.  My Puget Sound friends and neighbors might find it hard to relate to an autumn that leaves twigs encased in icy coffins, but my friends back in Minnesota understand all too well.

I recall one Halloween when my son and I set out at dusk to trick or treat in Minneapolis.  We made our way about two blocks as it began to snow hard, then harder.  We almost didn’t make it back home as we trudged through calf-deep drifts.

Autumn has its beauty.  “Every leaf is a flower,” is a beautiful sentiment.

But the fall is also one of God’s great metaphors.  And that makes it poignant, even as it is achingly beautiful.

Sonnet celebrating conjugality

Paths were I've put my foot before

Familiar Ways

I choose to walk the old familiar ways,
To wend ways where I’ve put my foot before,
To gaze anew on views seen other days,
Which, though familiar, never seem to bore.

The changing light and seasons have their ways
Of making old things new: The light-laced hoar,
The first-flush, green-glow, bursting-forth spring days,
The growing tinge of gold we can’t ignore.

Each day, my dear, I choose afresh our trail,
The one we blazed so many years ago,
Eschewing other routes that might avail,
And hewing to the well-worn way we know.
Forsaking novelty need be no jail
With your face bathed in sunset’s golden glow.


(2016)

Notes:  June is a big month for weddings. I know I’ve got an anniversary coming up soon. When people ask me how long I’ve been married, I have to stop and do the math. In the early years it was easy. We took in a young cat a month after our wedding, and so for 20 years I knew we were as married as the cat was old.

But when the cat died I was forced to use other memory tools.

As I was working on this sonnet a couple of years ago, I was reminded of a story poet John Ciardi related about Robert Frost, who at a lecture was asked by a woman in the audience: “Mr. Frost, surely when you write one of your beautiful poems, you are not thinking of technical tricks!”

Frost looked at the woman a while and replied, “I revel in them!”

Ciardi says Frost was like a horse trader who “would pick up an idea and whittle at it until he either wound up with a little whittled shape or a pile of shavings on the floor.”

I felt a little like a horse trader as I was writing this poem. It started with a simple, little idea. I can’t remember ever “whittling” more on a poem before. At first, this one seemed like it just never wanted to happen. I just kept whittling and whittling until something very different began to emerge from where I started.

After what seemed like an eternity, I began to see the tricks of the trade — namely rhythm, diction, image and form — coming together to embody the simple little idea.

This one did not plop, fully formed, into my lap. It was written, re-written, and re-written again. I wrote in on my phone. I copied it out by hand in a notebook. I typed it in Microsoft Word on my laptop. I read it aloud and even recorded a reading of it to hear how it sounded.

I found myself being keenly aware of assonance, alliteration and internal rhyme like never before.

I found myself unconsciously using the same sounds and rhymes over and over again as if I was consciously reinforcing the central idea. Then, I found myself breaking the pattern with lavish, flamboyant word choices in the middle of the poem to demonstrate the message.

I found myself coming around to embracing a metaphor in the final part of the poem. It was an idea that emerged only after the first part of the poem was written.

It may be a pile of shavings. Or it might be a little whittled shape.

You can be the judge.

Poetry Month, Continued …

Oyster.shell

As the Oyster Forms the Pearl

As the oyster forms the pearl,
So the poet pens the verse
As balm for the current ache
Born out of the ancient curse.

As the oyster feels compelled
To shellac the sandy grain,
So the poet feels the urge
To transmogrify the pain.

So the pearl grows rich and round
As its luster covers the sand.
So the verse unseen takes form
In its way, designed unplanned.

Sad the pearl that lies unseen
In the depths of the murky sea.
Sad the verse that dies unheard
In the heart clandestinely.

So the diver frees the pearl,
Breaks the stony shell apart.
So the poet frees the verse
Ripped out of his broken heart.


NOTES:  Apparently there is some skepticism about my assertion that April is Poetry Month.

Let this settle the matter once and for all.

Let’s call this one an extended metaphor.

Love Poem

Evergreen tree

LUMBERJACK LOVE

Though I am not a bearded man nor burly,
I love you with a lumberjack-type love.
The only axe I take in hand securely,
This meager pen across the page I shove.

Please treat me not so fickle nor so surly,
Don’t shield your limbs below nor lips above.
I aim to fell you skillfully and purely;
Each word’s to chip the bark around your love.


Notes:  This one was written 35 years ago, almost to the day.

Winter echo

Hoarfrost

FROST IN MORNING

When the willow world is with hoarfrost hung,
And the white fog lifts leaving trees bright new,
The foliage flashes with a crystal clue
Of how the world looked when light first leaped young.

Before man’s weight and weakness had begun
To break the branch or bruise the sodden slough,
The garden grew unburdened, bathed in dew,
Grew like a canticle, perfectly sung.


NOTES: Many years ago and many miles away, I awoke one Minnesota winter morning to the most astounding display of hoarfrost I had ever seen.  The world was completely coated, clothed in white.

This was approximately 35  years ago.  Garrison Keillor was just getting traction with his Prairie Home Companion show.  He still had a day job on the local public radio station, and that morning, he celebrated the frosty morning by reading a poem.

I regret that I do not remember the name, or author of the poem he read that day.  Perhaps it could have been this poem, Hoarfrost and Fog, by Barton Sutter.  But I don’t think so.

It might have been his own work.  But his efforts inspired the modest 8 lines I’ve posted above.

This fall, I’ve been writing a lot about how the death of summer is a metaphor for the inevitable death we all as humans face.  This might be the single most-used image in all of literature.

Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote a marvelous poem along these lines, Spring and Fall.  It’s one of my most beloved poems of all time.

Hopkins also wrote a 2-part poem, The Leaden Echo and the Golden Echo, that gets at something even more.  The first part, The Leaden Echo, sets up the problem of the decline and decay of beauty.  It ends with despair.

But, in The Golden Echo, we come back to hope for redemption, for eternal life, and for the love of a Heavenly Father who restores.

“When the thing we forfeit is kept with fonder a care
Fonder a care kept than we could have kept it ….”

(For a real treat, listen to Richard Burton read this poem.  He reads poetry as it should be read, not with whiny, tinny detachment, but with passion.)

So, as I look at nature, there are signs of both despair and hope.   Leaden echoes and golden echoes alike.

When I see the world covered in frost, I think of a more perfect world.  A world like what may have been before sin and death entered into it.  Or the world that is to come.

Love Sonnet

Sunset over the Olympic Mountains
“The changing light and seasons have their ways …”

Familiar Ways

I choose to walk the old familiar ways,
To wend ways where I’ve put my foot before,
To gaze anew on views seen other days,
Which, though familiar, never seem to bore.

The changing light and seasons have their ways
Of making old things new: The light-laced hoar,
The first-flush, green-glow, bursting-forth spring days,
The growing tinge of gold we can’t ignore.

Each day, my dear, I choose afresh our trail,
The one we blazed so many years ago,
Eschewing other routes that might avail,
And hewing to the well-worn way we know.
Forsaking novelty need be no jail
With your face bathed in sunset’s golden glow.


Poet John Ciardi relates this story about Robert Frost, who at a lecture was asked by  a woman in the audience: “Mr. Frost, surely when you write one of your beautiful poems, you are not thinking of technical tricks!”

Frost looked at the woman a while and replied, “I revel in them!”

Ciardi says Frost was like a horse trader who “would pick up an idea and whittle at it until he either wound up with a little whittled shape or a pile of shavings on the floor.”

I felt a little like a horse trader as I was writing this poem.  It started with a simple, little idea.  I can’t remember ever “whittling” more on a poem before.  At first, this one seemed like it just never wanted to happen. I just kept whittling and whittling until something very different began to emerge from where I started.

After what seemed like an eternity, I began to see the tricks of the trade — namely rhythm, diction, image and form — coming together to embody the simple little idea.

This one did not plop, fully formed, into my lap.  It was written, re-written, and re-written again.  I wrote in on my phone.  I copied it out by hand in a notebook.  I typed it in Microsoft Word on my laptop.  I read it aloud and even recorded a reading of it to hear how it sounded.

I found myself being keenly aware of assonance, alliteration and internal rhyme like never before.

I found myself unconsciously using the same sounds and rhymes over and over again as if I was consciously reinforcing the central idea.  Then, I found myself breaking the pattern with lavish, flamboyant word choices in the middle of the poem to demonstrate the message.

I found myself coming around to embracing a metaphor in the final part of the poem.  It was an idea that emerged only after the first part of the poem was written.

It may be a pile of shavings.  Or it might be a little whittled shape.

You can be the judge.