Vanishing Act

Unjustly overlooked poet Weldon Kees

Made another discovery recently, this one thanks to my old friend and schoolmate, the photographer and artist (and poet) John Marquand.

John turned me on to his favorite poet, Weldon Kees, an important, but overlooked poet from the last century. Kees really hasn’t gotten the attention his fans think he deserves, possibly because his output was small.

He was a modern day Renaissance Man, who in addition to writing poetry, was a novelist, short story writer, painter, literary critic, jazz pianist, and filmmaker.

Kees’ career was cut short when he disappeared in 1955 at age 41, a presumed suicide. His car was found near the approach to the Golden Gate Bridge, but his body was never found.

Kees captured the despair of modern urban life in the 20th Century, and expressed in fresh ways.

Perhaps the best examples of this is his series of four “Robinson” poems about an outwardly successful, but inwardly despairing modern man.

One of these is perhaps his mostly widely known poem, “Aspects of Robinson.” This essay by one of Kees’ champions, the poet Dana Gioia, gives a far better explanation of the poem than I ever could write.

If you’re interested in this sort of thing, it’s worth your time to read the whole essay, but I’ll include a tidbit:

“This poem demonstrates how Kees transformed the alienation and vacuity of contemporary life into lyric poetry. It does not offer readers comfort or escape. Kees did not transcend the problems of his century with a religious or a political faith. He did not elude the vulgarization of public culture by stealing away into an aesthetic realm. What he offered was uncompromising honesty, the transforming shock of recognition.” — Dana Gioia

It would very well be that the Kees’ uncompromising honesty combined with his inability to find redemption amidst a fallen culture finally led to his demise.

Some have speculated that Kees’ anti-hero, Robinson, was named after E.A. Robinson, the earlier American poet, who enjoyed a bit of a revival after Simon and Garfunkle adapted one of his poems into a famous song in the 1960s — “Richard Cory.”

There are certainly similarities between Kees’ Robinson, and Robinson’s Richard Corey.  But Kees’ Robinson is much more of a world-weary man of the mid-century.  Robinson’s Cory was a member of the sated upper class at the turn of the century.

More intriguing is the theory that Kees’ Robinson is really an aspect of the poet himself.

 

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Inspirational Doggerel

False Hawaii missile attack alert

A wise man once opined
That nothing so focuses the mind
Quite as much as knowing
That you’ll be hanged in the morning.

And while that may be true,
That knowledge is not really new.
Another wise man said
Soon or late we all wind up dead.


NOTES:  I can’t imagine what it must have been like in Hawaii Saturday when the alert of an incoming ballistic missile was issued by mistake.  Hopefully, all of the sober reflection that occurred during those tense minutes will bear some positive fruit.

 

“Brothers, I Loved You All”

Hayden Carruth
Hayden Carruth

One of my literary-minded friends has introduced me to the America poet Hayden Carruth, who lived from 1921 to 2008.

I’m not sure how I could have gone so long and gotten so old without finding him.  (Just another example of the gaping holes in my education, I guess.)

Carruth is growing on me.

Like Robert Frost, he moved to the Vermont countryside and learned to how to farm.  Carruth’s poems about some of his country neighbors are vivid, precise character sketches that remind me of the country folk I knew in my youth.

Like Frost, Carruth did a bit of teaching to help pay the bills.  He was aware of the looming shadow Frost cast over later Vermont poets, and he played with it a bit in some of his poems.

But he seems to be ornerier than Frost.  And more down to earth.  He seems to be a common man.  But a wicked smart, extremely well-read common man.

He dwells at that intersection between classic poets from an earlier age who paid attention to meter and rhyme, and the moderns of the last century, who reveled in the free innovation for the sake of innovation.

His poem, Late Sonnet, written later in his life, is one of his most interesting, I’ve read yet.

LATE SONNET

by Hayden Carruth

For that the sonnet no doubt was my own true
singing and suchlike other song, for that
I gave it up half cold-heartedly to set
my lines in a fashion that proclaimed its virtue
original in young arrogant artificers who
had not my geniality nor voice and yet
their fashionableness was persuasive to me,–what
shame and sorrow I pay!
+++++++++++++++++++++And that I knew
that beautiful hot old man Sidney Bechet
and heard his music often but not what he
was saying, that tone, phrasing, and free play
of feeling mean more than originality,
these being the actual qualities of song.
Nor is it essential to be young.

I read this as the confession of a poet who abandoned the craft he knew in his youth to pursue the fashionable trends of modern style.  He contrasts the pretentiousness of modern poets — the “arrogant artificers” — with the pure horn playing of jazzman Sidney Bechet, who — according to Carruth — emphasized feeling over originality.

Carruth developed this idea more fully in an interview published in Contemporary Authors.

“When I was young and starting to write poetry seriously and to investigate the resources of modern poetry, as we called it then, we still felt beleaguered; modern poetry was still considered outrageous by most of the people in the publishing business and in the reading audience at large.

“We still spoke in terms of the true artists and the philistines. We felt that if we could get enough people to read T. S. Eliot and Wallace Stevens and e. e. cummings and William Carlos Williams and other great poets of that period, then something good would happen in American civilization. We felt a genuine vocation, a calling, to try and make this happen. And we succeeded. Today thousands of people are going to colleges and attending workshops and taking courses in twentieth-century literature.

“Eliot and Stevens are very well known, very well read; and American civilization has sunk steadily, progressively, further and further down until most of the sensible people are in a state of despair. It’s pretty obvious that good writing doesn’t really have very much impact on social events or national events of any kind. We hope that it has individual impact, that readers here and there are made better in some way by reading our work. But it’s a hope; we have no proof.”

Carruth has helped me put my finger on what has bugged me about so much of modern poetry for a long time. I couldn’t quite define it until now. But after reading this, it has come into focus.

In the secular despair of the 20th Century, artists sought to take the place of God, who had been declared dead by the wise men of the age.

As Carruth said, “if we could get enough people to read T. S. Eliot and Wallace Stevens and e. e. cummings and William Carlos Williams and other great poets of that period, then something good would happen in American civilization.”

Cultural restoration through poetry!  Moral improvement through exposure to art.

The divine revelation of the Bible had been debunked courtesy of Darwin and Freud and others, faith had been undermined, and the vacuum that was created was seeking to fill itself with the work of artists and poets.

I would submit that this is much too big an assignment for poetry.

Don’t get me wrong.  I hold a pretty high view of poetry.  It can do a lot.  It can inspire, comfort and bless a soul.  It can express rich and deep feeling in elevated language. But I think the artistes of the last century reached too far.

My hypothesis is that this poetic overreach was responsible for much mischief — and a lot of unreadable poetry in the 20th Century.

Lest  you think I am making this up, Stevens was explicit about his intention to replace God with poetry.

According to Poetry Foundation, Stevens maintained that art was “the new deity in a theologically deficient age. Abstraction is necessary, Stevens declares, because it fosters the sense of mystery necessary to provoke interest and worship from humanity.”

I find Stevens’ abstraction cold and heartless — and frankly boring.

I disagree with his premise and his conclusion.  Just because Stevens didn’t believe in God didn’t mean that God was dead. (Please note: this theory is still under construction.)

If God is not dead, then poetry does not need to strive to be something it is not.  It does not need to replace divine revelation.  Since God is not dead, poetry can slip comfortably back into its proper role.

The poet can cease stop trying to take the place of God and settle back into the role of a human created in the image of God, creating beauty that reflects the beauty of God and his creation.  And also telling the truth about the tragedy of how the creation has fallen.

Feel free to check out the blog for some decidedly un-modern poetry…

 

Full Moon Haiku

The Super Moon of 2017

Autumn’s last full moon
illuminates my night walk.
No fear of stumbling.


Notes:  The only supermoon of 2017 just happened Sunday night.  We had a bit of fog that — instead of obscuring the light of the moon — only amplified it.  It was so bright you could detect some colors.

Autumn Sonnet

Autumn scene

FALLING LEAVES LIKE LOVERS

The leaves, the leaves are gone except the oak,
Which cling to trees and rattle needlessly.
The others flame and fall for all to see.
They streak and sizzle, leaving only smoke.
But oak leaves hang as by some unseen yoke,
All browned and curled awaiting sympathy,
Or sap to course and lend vitality —
The leaves cannot perceive the sorry joke.
For spring will end the lie and they will drop,
To drift and rot and turn in time to dust.
As sure as buds will burst to make a crop
Of new, the old will flutter down — they must.
The falling leaves like lovers never stop.
It’s hardly gentle, but ’tis just, ’tis just.


NOTES: It was a mild and beautiful and extended autumn here in the Pacific Northwest, but the rains and winds have returned, knocking most of the remaining leaves off the trees over the Thanksgiving weekend.

Oak trees are not as plentiful here as they are back in the Midwest, where this poem was written some 35 years ago. But if there is an oak around, you can bet it will be hanging onto its leaves long after all the other trees have shed theirs.

Philosophy and Poetry

The poet in a philosophical mood

A Short Philosophical Love Note

Of what does missing consist?
(But first, know this, you are missed.)
It could be the lack of tender attack –
You see, I’ve missed getting kissed.

It might be like a disease
That only your treatment can ease.
The symptoms persist and although I resist
I wind up down on my knees.

It’s metaphysical tricks –
That’s strange, I know, but it sticks –
What else could explain the internal pain
When my heart my law contradicts.

It could be all in the mind,
If mental’s the way we’re designed.
But wishing you were does not make you here –
That’s truth of a different kind.

Who plumbs the depths of the soul?
And who knows the depth of the hole
Gouged when a lover heads for safe cover,
Exacting outrageous toll?


NOTES: When I headed off to college, my long-suffering father advised me to study “something practical.”  He suspected that I was likely to squander my opportunity at getting the education he never had the chance to acquire.

It might have been my hair, which had not been cut since the end of football season.  It might have been his knowledge that I was not the type of kid who listened to his elders.

So, of course, I went straight ahead and majored in philosophy with a minor in Greek and Latin.

And, also of course, the universe proved my father right.  Upon graduation I entered the job market and landed a coveted job as fry cook at a pancake house.

It was the only job I could get.

I had gravitated towards philosophy because I wanted to find answers to the big questions of life. I wanted to find Truth, Beauty and Love, and thought that philosophy was the route.

I didn’t find the answers I sought in philosophy. Instead, I grew weary of hairsplitting arguments and arcane debates about the meaning of language.

By my senior year, I was tired of the whole enterprise.

But I did find truth in a most unsuspected place. Not in the heavy and thick books of philosophical and impenetrable prose.  But in a dusty old Bible, the same Bible my father had been pointing me towards all my life.

Ironically, not only was my father right about studying something practical, he turned out to be right about where to find truth as well.

But off at college, I experienced my own personal John Newton/Saul of Tarsus moment.

Like the notorious English slave trader, I realized I had been blind about my own wretchedness.

Like the self-righteous Pharisee, I was knocked to the ground and scales fell from my eyes.

Like both of them, I was touched by grace and set on a new path with a completely fresh start.

After searching for truth in the ancient writings of Socrates and Plato, and seeking power in the seductive teachings of the East, I discovered that the truth I sought had been under my nose all the time.

But now that I had found truth, I still had to figure out what to do with my life. I was a decent short order cook, but I was pretty sure it wasn’t my calling.

I finally hit on the idea that I needed to do something that involved writing. And in those days in the afterglow of Watergate, this meant journalism.  So I went back to school to take just enough classes to land a newspaper job.

We all wanted to be the next Woodward and Bernstein.

I was delighted when I landed my first freelance stringer assignment. I drove to City Hall, spent 3 hours at a city council meeting, drove back home and then spent another 4 or 5 hours writing up as many stories as I could. The next morning, I drove the finished copy to the office.

I was delighted that for this they’d pay me a whole 15 bucks! And if one of the stories was decent, I might get a treasured byline.

What I didn’t realize was that the newspaper business had already started its long, slow decline. By the early 1980s, afternoon dailies were already going out of business all across the U.S.

Newsrooms were shrinking and it was tough to get on with a major metropolitan paper. And this was all before the internet cut the legs out from under newspapers’ business model.

Impatient with the career prospects at the big papers, I took a job as the editor of a financial newsletter.

(Had I been a better investigative journalist, I would have discovered that this publication had nothing to do with reporting objective truth. Instead, it was the front-end lead generator for a rare coin and precious metals dealer. It was really a direct marketing enterprise.)

But things worked out, and that first direct marketing job eventually led me to doing fundraising for good causes, which has been my career for the past quarter century.

But for several years — before I found the love of my life and the mother of my children — my love life followed the same tragic-comic early trajectory as my circuitous career path.

Full of false starts and spectacular missteps.

After one of these disasters, many years ago, I wrote the poem posted today.

It’s about the only thing I have to show today for my philosophy major.

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.