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.

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Sibling Haiku

Four brothers at their last reunion

No way we could know
at this playful reunion,
it would be our last.


(2015)

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.

I’m the last leaf on the tree.

Love Sonnet

Orson Welles pitching Paul Masson wine

“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.


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.

Historical note:

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.

Haiku Haiku

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
salt-winds drive
storm-tossed waves
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.

Why write poetry?

Samuel Johnson had things to say about writing.
“No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money.” — Samuel Johnson

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.

 

©Bobby Ball 2017


NOTES:  Samuel Johnson was a funny guy.  If his aphorism is correct, that “no man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money,” then poets are the biggest blockheads of them all.

A few diligent writers of books and screenplays and advertising copy can manage to make a living scribbling words.  But poets need another gig to pay the bills.

Most often, they teach.  Gerard Manley Hopkins was a priest and a teacher.  Robert Frost famously tried his hand at farming, but he also taught and lectured.

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.

Englishman Philip Larkin earned his living as a librarian.  American Charles Bukowski was a postal clerk.

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.

 

There is a balm in poetry

Gerard Manley Hopkins was a poetic champion
Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844-1889)

When I can’t take another newscast, another politician, another argument about Brexit, or another protest march, I’m so happy that we have poetry.

And when I seek solace in poetry, I’m so happy that poetry has Gerard Manley Hopkins.

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.”