Poem in Autumn

Autumn leaves

Autumn Lament

September’s sun has come and gone
+++And now the fall is here.
October’s blaze adorns the lawn,
+++The swan song of the year.

The bonfires of my autumns past
+++Burn cool as I recall
The hayride loves that failed to last
+++Beyond the end of fall.

Out on the gridiron battlefield,
+++Where so much toil was paid,
Where cheers and chants once loudly pealed,
+++Now flags and glory fade.

Our friends and kinsmen now are few.
+++Our lovers are all gone.
All those we thought would see us through
+++Cannot be counted on.

When we were young we loved the fall.
+++We loved the leaves aglow.
Knew always we’d have one more fall.
+++Those days, what did we know?

(2018)


When I wrote this one last year, I had no idea how prophetic it would be. In the past 12 months, I’ve learned of the deaths of my sister-in-law, and a college dormmate. And just recently, I discovered that the high school buddy I shared more experiences with than any other has entered an Alzheimer’s nursing home.

I used to love the fall.

Poem: The Workman and His Tools

Raymond Ball and Ralph Ball
He Knew the Worth of Tools

He was a man who knew the worth of tools.
How having just the right one for the job
Was worth a lot, but clearly not as much
As knowing what to do with ones you had,
And what to do with tools he surely knew.

When just a boy on a Missouri farm,
He started hanging round the blacksmith shop
Whenever he could catch a ride to town.
Old Henry Ford’s new-fangled auto car
Had sparked a need for handy fix-it men.
He joined the revolution, then and there,
Brought by the horseless carriage on the land,
And learned mechanics on a Model T.
He mastered use of wrenches and of pliers,
Learned lessons he would use for decades hence.

To make it through the Great Depression’s dearth
He took whatever labor he could find.
He hoed bean rows and stripped bluegrass by hand,
With just the simplest tools to do the job.
His daily wage back then was just a buck,
But any honest work beat none at all.
To earn his daily bread he tilled the soil
Just like his male ancestors all before.

But he saw tools of farming changing too,
With tractors putting horses out of work.
He gambled on a combine harvester
That reaped and threshed and winnowed all at once.
Then hiring out his cutting-edge machine,
He saved enough to buy his own small farm,
And one by one he added to his tools.

In time he sold the farm and moved to town
To try his hand in the commercial world.
Still very much a Ford man in his heart,
He bought a dealership of farm machines—
The boldest speculation of his life.
But business wasn’t really his strong suit,
And when it failed, he carried on with tools.

He built a practice fixing implements —
Hay balers, corn pickers, tractors — all repaired
Right where they’d broken down out in the field.
And farmers round about began to say,
“If Ray can’t make her run she can’t be fixed.”

When he was well past sixty years of age
He got a crazy notion in his head—
He’d always dreamed of having his own shop—
So he measured out the plan in the back yard.
And there he built the thing all by himself
With salvaged lumber gotten almost free.
Of course, it looked just like a barn.
Because, well, that’s only thing that he’d built before.
But he knew well enough the tools required.
Beneath his hammer, nails sunk into boards
With just two strokes, or maybe three.
His singing handsaw made the sawdust fly.
His level, plane and plumb line kept all true.
Out of a worthless demolition pile
He fashioned form where there was none before.
His barn still stands though many years have passed.
With paint and care could stand for many more.
It needs someone with tools to care again.

And when his wife of more than fifty years
Grew absent minded and began to fail,
He looked in vain for tools to fix her with.
Installed a cook-stove, gas-line, shut-off valve
When she began to start forgetting things,
Like if she’d turned the burners on or off.
Nowhere on all his cluttered workshop shelves
Was there a tool to fix her slipping mind.
The final years he’d visit every day
Ensuring that she ate her rest home meal.
The only tool of any use a spoon.
In time, the spoon was of no use as well.

My work today requires different tools.
I toil in neither soil nor wood nor stone.
Instead of grease my hands are stained with ink.
I polish common syllables to rhyme.
I calibrate my words to find a song,
Fine tuning—like a carburetor—lines,
To make them run not either rich nor lean,
To purr and roar without the gassy fumes,
Obscuring sense and choking with the smoke.

My father’s tools lie idle on the bench.
The workman will not use them anymore.
With all the craftsmanship I can bestow,
I carry on instead with tools I know.

(2019)


I’ve been reading a lot of Robert Frost this year. He was a modern master of blank verse and all of that exposure is bound to have some influence on me. I can only hope some of the music rubs off on me.

Back in May, I took a stab at blank verse and it seemed to work out okay. So here is another in the same vein.

The workman in this poem is my father. I am living proof that mechanical aptitude is not hereditary.

From the poet to his love playing hard to get

Don't shield your limbs below nor lips above

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.


(1982)

NOTES: Seems like everyone’s felt like this at one point or another.

Van Morrison said, “I got hit by a bow and arrow, got me down to the very marrow.” John Lee Hooker said, “Baby please don’t go.”  The Bee Gees, said, “It’s only words, and words are all I have to take your heart away.”

Poem for Mother’s Day, in Defiance of Alzheimer’s

Mother holding me in 1952

She Knew the Names of Things

She knew the names of things, knew them by heart.
Not just the farmwife flowers of the yard,
But the wild ones in the hidden woods.
And in the woods, she knew the names of trees.
She knew quaint sayings about country ways.
“That’s no sign of a duck’s nest,” she would say,
Defying explanation even then.

She knew the names of birds, common and rare:
The Red Wing, Meadow Lark and Mourning Dove,
Brown Thrush and Gold Finch and sad Whippoorwill.
She knew them by their call as well as sight.

She knew the names of lonely widowed aunts,
And she knew dates and anniversaries,
And surely, she recalled that doleful day
When the son who called her “Mother” was fished
By divers out of San Diego Bay.
For grief, she never spoke of it again.

And though she’d barely gone to school, she
Had sense enough to hang a dishrag up,
She knew her Whitman and her Bible well.
And when the door-yard Lilacs bloomed she paused
Amidst the sweet perfume, breathed, and recalled
The poem and soft fragrance that she loved,
Sweet messenger of spring—but not too sweet,
Not like the syrupy Petunias
That she also loved, but differently.
She always favored the modest flowers
That had a tinge of tragedy and loss
Like Lilacs and Lillies of the Valley,
Named for the suffering Savior of mankind.
She knew the things she loved, and she could name them.

But winter of the mind came drifting in
And names of things were slowly covered up,
As when the snow erases hue and shape
And leaves the garden white, formless and blank.

The soaring Hollyhocks were overcome,
Begonias, Honeysuckle, Marigolds,
The Morning Glories high atop the gate
Were covered, as was Aunt Minerva, too,
(Whom she loved like the mother she had lost),
And cousin Gene undone at Normandy,
And buried there amidst a cross-white field.

Peonies bowed their heavy heads beneath
The heavy snow and disappeared away.
So too, the old folks’ graves that she adorned
With their bouquets each Decoration Day.

Wild Lady Slipper too did not escape,
Entombed beneath its own soft shroud of white
With Buttercup, Catalpa, Trumpet Vine,
With Thistle, Jimsonweed and Columbine.
And covered too were Maples, Elms and Oaks,
The Willow tree we started from a branch,
The stately Cottonwood that soared above
The old farm woods, completely covered up.

And covered too were barefoot childhood days
On Clear Creek growing up carefree, before
Her still-young mother died of Spanish Flu,
And left five other kids for her to raise.
Those days she loved them, and she knew their names:
Hayward, Walden (though others called him Joe)
Jesse, Vivian, and the youngest Bill.
All these names buried and forgotten now.

Gone was her motto written out longhand
Held by a magnet to the old icebox
With wise and frugal counsel: “Use it up
Wear it out. Make it do, or do without.”

Old photographs stuck in a musty book
Assembled even as the blizzard blew,
A vain attempt to thwart the mounting snow,
The names obliterated anyway
By endless pitiless nameless white.

I walk now through the fiery leaves of fall
And ponder piles of faded photographs,
Repeating names I learned so long ago,
Recalling things and places I have loved

In hopes this recitation will forestall
My own impending blanketing of snow.
Perhaps my winter will be mild—or not.
Perhaps I will become snowbound as well.

But I shall say the names of things ’til then
And recall her who taught them first to me.
Remembering, turn my face to winter’s blast,
Defying it to dare to land a blow.
For I shall sing the names of things until
I lie here frozen stiff beneath the snow.


(2019)

NOTES: The poems I learned at my mother’s knee employed meter and rhyme. So it’s only natural that I’m most comfortable with forms like ballads and sonnets. They speak my heart language. I’ve long agreed with Robert Frost that writing in free verse is like playing tennis with the net down. It may do wonders for the self esteem, but it’s hardly sporting.

But lately, I’ve had the itch to write something longer than a sonnet, or something more ambitious than eight lines of rhyming couplets. After digging around, I settled on blank verse, which sticks with meter, but dispenses with the need for thyme. Sort of like playing tennis with the net lowered a couple of feet. I suppose if it was good enough for Marlowe and Shakespeare, it should be good enough for me.

My mother died several years ago after a protracted siege of some type of dementia. It may have been Alzheimer’s Disease, but it was likely some other variant because it dragged out longer than usual for that particular form of dementia. We never had a formal diagnosis.

I hope the poem speaks for itself and provides a fitting tribute for Mother’s Day.

P.S. Extra note for poetry nerds: The last 14 lines came the easiest for me. Only when they were completed did I realize that they were almost a sonnet. However, the lines were not rhyming, except for one rhyme at the end. I guess old habits are hard to break.

 

Formal Poetry vs. Free Verse

Old School by Tobias Wolff

Formal poetry versus free verse. The debate is more than a century old and I don’t intend to settle it. But I will confess my bias right up front.

I find myself drawn to poetry with meter and rhyme because that is my heart language–the verse I learned on my mother’s knee.  My parents read nursery rhymes aloud as far back as I can remember, followed by Eugene Field, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and James Whitcomb Riley. In school we read Shakespeare and Poe, and memorized Concord Hymn by Ralph Waldo Emerson and Invictus by William Ernest Henley.

And though one high school English teacher did his best instill in us his conviction that Walt Whitman was the greatest of poets, by then it was too late. By that point my ear was trained, and while Whitman’s soaring verse in Leaves of Grass had a certain charm, it was the charm of a foreign language.

Over the years since, I have made an effort to appreciate free verse with some success. Raymond Carver broke through. Marie Howe has landed a punch or two. So did Donald Hall and Hayden Carruth, (and I appreciate the latter’s occasional return to rhyme.) I’ve even attempted to write a few free verse poems myself. But all along, it has been a bit like learning a second language.

One of the best debates about the relative merits of formal poetry and free verse takes place on the pages of a book I recently picked up off the bookshelf in my adult son’s old bedroom. The book is Old School by the American writer Tobias Wolff.

It’s a wickedly funny story about an elite boys prep school set in 1960. The plot turns on the school’s periodic literary contest. The winner of each contest has the honor of a private meeting with the semester’s guest speaker, which has traditionally been a famous and successful author.

Early in the book, Wolff has the audacity invite none other than Robert Frost into his novel and put words into the mouth of the aging poet. With the students and teachers assembled in the school’s chapel. He recited several of his poems, ending on Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.

During the ensuing question-and-answer period, Frost is challenged by one of the young teachers, a Mr. Ramsey, who introduces his question with a critique of formal poetry.

Your work, sir, Mr. Ramsey said, follows a certain tradition. Not the tradition of Whitman, that most American of poets, but a more constrained, shall we say formal tradition, as in that last poem you read, “Stopping in Woods.” I wonder–

After Frost corrects Ramsey about the actual title of the poem, the teacher forges ahead to make his point.

Yes sir. Now that particular poem is not unusual in your work for being written in stanza form, with iambic lines connected by rhyme.

Frost replies, intentionally mistaking Mr. Ramsey for one of the students.

Good for you, Frost said. They must be teaching you boys something here.

Frost’s mischievous “mistake” triggers an outburst of laughter from the students, but when the poet asks him to continue with is question, Mr. Ramsey is undeterred.

Yes sir. The question is whether such a rigidly formal arrangement of language is adequate to express the modern consciousness. That is, should form give way to more spontaneous modes of expression, even at the cost of a certain disorder?

Modern consciousness, Frost said. What’s that?

Ah! Good question, sir. Well–very roughly speaking I would describe it as the mind’s response to industrialization, the saturation propaganda of governments and advertisers, two world wars, the concentration camps, the dimming of faith by science, and of course the constant threat of nuclear annihilation. Surely these things have an effect on us. Surely they have changed our thinking.

When Mr. Ramsey finally finished, it was clear he was making more of a statement than asking a question. Frost then responded in kind.

Don’t tell me about science, Frost said. I’m something of a scientist myself. Bet you didn’t know that. Botany. You boys know what tropism is, it’s what makes a plant grow towards the light. Everything aspires to the light. You don’t have to chase down a fly to get rid of it–you just darken the room, leave a crack of light in a window, and out it he goes. Works every time. We all have that instinct, that aspiration. Science can’t–what was your word? dim?–science can’t dim that. All science can do is turn out the false lights so the true light can get us home.

Mr. Ramsey began to say something, but Frost kept going.

So don’t tell me about science, and don’t tell me about war. I lost my nearest friend in that one they call the Great War. So did Achilles lose his friend in war, and Homer did no injustice to his grief by writing about it in dactylic hexameters. There’s always been wars, and they’ve always been as foul as we could make them. It is very find and pleasant to think ourselves the most put upon folk in history–but then everyone has thought that from the beginning. It makes a grand excuse for all manner of laziness. But about my friend. I wrote a poem for him. I will write poems for him. Would you honor your own friend by putting words down anyhow, just as they come to you–with no thought for the sound they make, the meaning of their sound, the sound of their meaning? Would that give us a true account of the loss?

Frost has been looking right at Mr. Ramsey as he spoke. Now he broke off and let his eyes roam over the room.

I am thinking of Achilles’s grief, he said. That famous, terrible grief. Let me tell you boys something. Such grief can only be told in form. Maybe it only really exists in form. Form is everything. Without it you’ve got nothing but a stubbed toe cry–sincere, maybe, for what that’s worth, but with no depth or carry. No echo. You may have a grievance but you do not have grief, and grievances are for petitions, not poetry. Does that answer your question?

I suppose we could have expected nothing less from Frost, who once famously compared writing poetry without rhyme and meter “like playing tennis without the net.”

And I must admit, I was cheering on the old curmudgeon as he put the impertinent schoolmaster in his place.

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.

Why Poetry?

A philosophical poet

I Sing Not for Glory

I sing not for glory nor for bread,
Nor for the praise of the credentialed clique.
But for hire more valuable instead,
To touch the honest kindred heart I seek.

I sing for lovers when love is green,
When time stops for a solitary kiss.
When light shines anew as with new eyes seen,
I celebrate your fey and fragile bliss.

I sing for the lonely, lovelorn heart,
When light grows cold and aching will not cease,
When your enchanted world falls all apart,
I offer modest salve to give you peace.

I sing for the pilgrim searching soul
Pursuing the heart’s true cause and treasure.
May heaven’s hound, you hasten to your goal,
And propel you to your proper pleasure.

I sing for the wise who see their end,
And, too, for those who have not yet awoke.
For to a common home we all descend,
With common dirt for all our common cloak.

I sing not for money nor for art,
Nor to amuse curators of our trade.
The simple wages of the simple heart
Will satisfy when my accounts are weighed.


NOTES:  I understand April is Poetry Month.  In keeping with this solemn occasion, here’s a poem about poetry.