No way we could know
at this playful reunion,
it would be our last.
Notes: While there may be a later photo of my brothers and I all together, I do not know of it. Less than four years after this shot, Bill (third from the bottom) would perish in a scuba diving accident in San Diego bay.
John (second from the bottom) was an electrician who would touch the wrong wire in a Colorado coal mine many years later.
Larry (at the bottom) would die after a stroke in 2010.
“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.
Notes: The news lately has been filled with dreadful reports: mass shootings in Las Vegas, bombings in far-away lands, vile behavior by the powerful of Hollywood.
Because I know that mankind is fallen, I have no confidence in “human nature.” But my innate positive outlook this week has been shaken.
When the week began, I learned that the son of a friend and former colleague had been one of the wounded in the Las Vegas mass shooting. He had been a law enforcement officer for over 20 years and had never been shot, nor shot anyone in the line of duty.
And then he was shot in the neck and shoulder while he was attending a country music concert.
Thankfully, he survived and is on the mend today, and should be okay.
Then, the news about the Hollywood sexual abuse scandal broke. My Facebook feed has been filled not only lurid stories of the rich and famous, but heartbreaking firsthand accounts from women I know who have suffered in silence from heinous actions of abusers.
The sheer amount of #me too is overwhelming.
Evil is real and more common than we want to admit.
One particularly poignant series of posts has made me reassess my own hometown experience.
I’ve written glowingly about my childhood and my hometown and my education.
As I have processed the new information, I must admit that — depending on where you stood — my hometown could have been more Twin Peaks than Mayberry RFD.
There was stuff going on back there that I had no idea about.
So, in the face of horror and dread, I will resort to a place of solace and peace.
I will celebrate love, and marriage, and monogamy.
I will seek to find meaning and comfort in order and rhyme and meter.
When the society and the culture seems to be disintegrating, I will look to the good examples I have in my life and celebrate faithfulness and honor and love.
I really don’t know what else to do.
I’m old enough to remember when Orson Welles became a television pitchman for a sort-of-good American wine.
Welles had been the genius who panicked the nation in 1938 with his faux-documentary radio broadcast, “War of the Worlds.” In 1941, he directed and starred in “Citizen Kane,” considered to be among the best — if not the best film of all time.
By the late 1970s, Welles was making commercials. His Paul Masson spots are still classics.
“We will sell no wine before its time,” was a magnificent slogan.
The haiku master
explicated his own work.
So I could do worse.
NOTES: You could get the idea in sophisticated poetry circles, that it’s low-rent to indulge in writing poetry about yourself or discussing your own work.
You can almost hear a schoolmarmish voice laying out the ground rules.
“Best to write about concept and ideas, and always with an ironic detachment lest you should be accused of wallowing in sentimentality.
“Do not indulge in personal poetry. And, whatever you do, be sure to let the poem speak for itself. Don’t commit the sin of talking about your work or trying to explain what it means. The work is what it is, and it means what it means to the reader.”
Well, I say hogwash to all that.
And my first expert witness is none other than Matsuo Basho, the 17th century haiku master.
Like every fan of haiku, I had read Basho’s poems, but I couldn’t say that I had really gotten to know Basho until I stumbled across his travel diaries.
If I have some free time on a weekend, one of my favorite pastimes is to duck into our local used bookstore to see what new poetry books have trickled in. A couple of weeks ago, I spotted “The Essential Basho” translated by Sam Hamill.
After thumbing through a few pages, I knew I had to have it.
What I learned was that Basho made several walking journeys around Japan in the 1600s. Often accompanied by a student, he walked from town to town seeking out shrines and temples, natural landmarks, and other artistic souls along the way.
And as he went he not only wrote haiku, but he kept a journal. He would explain where he was and what he was seeing as he wrote his poetry.
Sometimes he would quote an ancient poem written about the same view he was seeing. Sometimes he would write his own poem. But sometimes he would humbly decline to add anymore.
Basho hired a boat at a town called Yoshizaki so he could sail out to see the famous pine trees at Shiogoshi. He was well aware of the poem written some 500 years before by Saigyo.
All the long night
and moonlight drips
through Shiogoshi pines.
Basho declined to write a poem of his own.
“This one poem says enough,” Basho wrote. “To add another would be like adding a sixth finger to a hand.”
But, when he does write his own poems, Basho often provides the setting to give the reader enough context to better understand the meaning.
For example, when he writes this haiku, it is possible to get a feel for what is going on from just the text itself:
If’ I’d walked Walking-
stick Pass, I’d not have fallen
from my horse.
But it means much more when you read Basho’s explanation.
“They say the ancient poet Sogi nearly starved to death in the high village of Hinaga,” Basho wrote. “I hired a horse to help me over Walking-stick Pass. Unfamiliar with horses and tack, both saddle and rider took a tumble.”
In other cases, without the poet’s explanation, you won’t really understand the poem at all.
On the second day,
I’ll rise early to welcome
the oncoming spring.
On the surface, this seems like a sentimental, but shallow little seasonal poem. But when you read Basho’s context, it becomes a much more interesting and humorous glimpse into his soul.
“Reluctant to see the year-end,” Basho wrote, “I drank until well past midnight on New Year’s Eve, only to sleep through the morning on New Year’s Day.”
It turns out Basho missed the first morning of the new year because he was hung-over.
If he had been alive today, I’m pretty sure Basho would have been a blogger. I’m happy he left behind his journals to help us understand his work.
With such an illustrious example as his, I resolve to be less sheepish about providing commentary on my own poetry.
Some poets have conducted quite conventional careers during the day to support their poetry habit at night. Insurance executive Wallace Stevens and physician William Carlos Williams are a couple of well known examples.
Dylan Thomas really couldn’t do much else besides write poems, and so he waged a losing war with poverty until he drank himself to death. He probably would have perished much sooner except for the fact he was able to charm wealthy female admirers into becoming patronesses.
About the only thing I have in common with the aforementioned gentlemen is that while I sometimes commit poetry, I also need another means to make a living.
I started my professional life in the 1970s as an ink-stained wretch of a newspaperman. While chasing deadlines was exhilarating when I was still a young man, there were already storm clouds on the horizon for journalism. Afternoon dailies were going extinct, and cities that had formerly had 2, 3 or more newspapers were seeing them merge or go out of business.
Little did I know that in just a few years, the internet would come along and fatally wound the mainstream media organizations, forcing them to trim their newsrooms and close regional bureaus.
I sensed that there was a disturbing uniformity of political opinion in the newsrooms of my youth. My own political worldview was still evolving, but even back then everybody I worked with seemed to be left-leaning and Reagan-loathing. The lockstep groupthink bothered me.
In my naïve idealism, I thought journalists were supposed to be fiercely objective. I never caucused with any party, and I strove to play my own coverage right down the middle. I’d have coffee with both Democrats and Republicans, and always made sure to pay my own check because I didn’t want to owe anybody anything.
When the owner of one paper tried to pressure me to join the local Rotary Club, I refused because I didn’t want membership to influence my coverage of any organization.
If I had still been a journalist this past year I think my head would have exploded. With news organizations colluding with political campaigns, and sharing debate questions in advance with the favored candidate, it became clear that our creaky old news institutions had jumped the shark.
I would have burned my press card in protest.
I wish I could say I was smart enough to foresee the death of journalism and jump ship intentionally, but it was more random than that. I was about to get married and I needed a job in Minneapolis. The cash-strapped metropolitan dailies weren’t hiring right then, and so I took the first job I could get.
Fortunately I had stumbled my way into direct marketing. That later led me into non-profit fundraising. The bulk of my career since has been helping good causes raise money. Healing the sick, feeding the hungry, caring for widows and orphans, defending the persecuted, visiting those in prison, bringing the good news to those in bondage — that sort of thing.
I began to appreciate what I do a whole lot more when I stopped thinking about it as marketing and started thinking about it as “soul stirring.” When I’m doing it right, I touch the heart to stir people up to good works, and inspire them to be generous.
If you ask me, that’s really just a short step away from poetry. It’s all soul stirring.
He’s truly a treasure. Virtually unpublished during his own lifetime, he left behind a small but rich collection of stunning poems.
A complete original, he labored in obscurity, writing poetry in his spare time when not occupied with his vocation as a Roman Catholic priest.
He took his poetry — like his religion — seriously, developing his own philosophy of poetry. And he innovated style and form, as well, creating his own form he called “sprung rhythm.”
Check out his poem, “Inversnaid.” The poem is a description of a steam rushing down a hillside emptying into Loch Lomond in Scotland.
The description is wonderful, and well worth clicking away to read the whole poem. But the last stanza is amazing. It’s four lines that form a prayer, seemingly beseeching God to preserve nature from the depredations of mankind:
What would the world be, once bereft
Of wet and of wildness? Let them be left
O let them be left, wildness and wet;
Long live the weeds and the wilderness yet.
When I read that out loud, I forget about what’s blaring on television, and I smile a little smile, and I find myself drawn back to the heart and center. Actually drawn back to God.
That’s what John Ciardi must have meant when he said, “Enrich language, and you cannot fail to enrich our experience. Whenever we have let great language into our heads, we have been richer for it.”