Sonnet on Truth, Beauty & Love

The golden light shone all about your hair

Perhaps it Was in Athens

Perhaps it was in Athens that you found
A glimpse of what you vaguely hoped was there.
You stood atop the pagans’ holy ground
The golden light shone all about your hair.

Perhaps it was in Florence when you stood
Before the boldly sculpted Hebrew king
That something stirred within you, something good,
Suggesting that one day your heart would sing.

But who would dream that your epiphany
Would strike in places both obscure and spare–
A country town on life’s periphery–
Or suburb that might well be anywhere.
Improbably, inside a darkened room
The golden light shone all about your hair.


(2018)

NOTES:  When she was in her early 20s, my wife, long before I met her, headed off to see Europe. She told her parents she was travelling with a friend, but she actually went alone. (I think the statute of limitations on that crime has long passed, so it’s safe to report it.)

She was a seeker, but I don’t believe she really knew what she was looking for. It could have been adventure.  It could have been truth and beauty.  I have a sneaking suspicion that she was trying to imitate Joni Mitchell and find love on some exotic Greek Island.

Although she broke her foot alighting from a bus, and had to fight off the amorous advances of a Greek boat captain, she made it back to the U.S. alive. But she still hadn’t found what she was looking for.

That epiphany actually happened a bit later in the spare bedroom of her grandparents’ house in a tiny town in northern Minnesota. She tells the story much better than I, but suffice to say it was one of those dramatic spiritual encounters where God gives a seeking, but still doubting heart, the assurance it needs.

Then, fast forward a few years to the point of the story where I come in.  It’s actually the story of my epiphany, but she was central to it.

I’m a reporter for a weekly newspaper in a first-ring suburb of Minneapolis. I’m covering a conference led by the then-Chaplain of the U.S. Senate, Richard Halverson. It’s being held in a high school auditorium.

As I’m inching down the far right aisle with my camera in hopes of lining up a good shot, I see–sitting all by herself in the middle of the second row–this beautiful blonde woman.  (That is not terribly unusual. I am a lonely single guy, and I notice these things.)

But what really gets my attention is that the beautiful blonde woman is glowing with a golden aura. I kid you not. This is a darkened auditorium. There is no spotlight or any other natural light source shining on her. But she is glowing. But no one else apparently notices.

(Had I been a better reporter, I might have taken her picture. But I doubt that the light I saw would show up on normal 35mm film.)

So I proceed to get my photo of the chaplain and take notes for my story, but I keep one eye on the beautiful glowing blonde woman.

I observe, sadly, that at the end of the program she immediately approaches the chaplain and his companions, and appears to be a member of his party from Washington, D.C.

My hopes dashed, I go back to the office, write my story and go on with my life.

A couple of week later, I find myself at the local Presbyterian church I had recently started attending. I’m talking to my friend Marci, a fellow member of the singles group. Imagine my surprise when who should stride up but the blonde woman from the conference. (Although she is no longer glowing with supernatural light, she is still beautiful.)

And, as fate would have it, they know each other. Marci says, “Jan, I’d like you to meet my friend Bob. Bob, this is Jan.” Then Marci turns and quickly ducks out of the conversation.

Right then I am pretty convinced that God had made the beautiful blonde woman glow for me. Being a little slow on the uptake, I needed the equivalent of a neon arrow to get my attention.

I play it cool and wait to mention the fact that I had seen her glowing until a bit later. But I make sure to meet her the next week at church, and get her phone number. I am not going to let this one get away again.

STYLE NOTE: I should point out that I intentionally violated the rhyme scheme in the next to the last line. The rhyming word comes not at the end of the line but at the very beginning. It was on purpose because–well–the event being described was improbable.

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Sonnet for Love in Late Summer

Wine barrel signed by Orson Welles

“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.


(2016)

Photo courtesy of TripAdvisor

NOTES: The shorter days and fainter light of September are stirring all sorts of poignant feelings. Something about this time of year makes me want to haul this old poem out of the cellar one more time.

I’m old enough to remember when Orson Welles employed his considerable talent to pitch some middle-of-the-road wine back in the late 1970s. He had been a celebrated actor, who had co-written, directed, and starred in Citizen Kane, what many still consider the best film ever made.

But he was difficult to work with, and had trouble raising money for his projects.  So he turned to advertising to pay the bills. His Paul Masson spots where he declared, “We will sell no wine before its time,” are classic examples of great advertising.

Paul Masson sales reportedly rose by 33% while that campaign ran.

Sonnet for Late Summer

Dry grass, abandoned boat, and old shed

Late Summer’s Sun

Late summer’s sun has baked the grass to brown.
The days grow shorter with each passing day,
Soon, autumn’s chill will make the leaves fall down.
All of this aching beauty will decay.

And yet I love the shadows’ slanting trace,
The once green grain gone golden in its rows,
And how I love the lines etched in your face.
It’s funny, as love ripens how it grows.

The number of our days we do not know.
No sleeper knows if he will ever wake.
So come, let’s join above, between, below.
My dear, let’s cause our fragile clay to quake.
Let us make love as if it’s our last go.
Let us embrace like dawn will never break.


(2015)

Notes:  It’s not really late summer, but it just feels like it. The ground is parched, the foliage is showing its mortality, and I’m ready for some rain. Normally I would wait until September to haul out this sonnet, but this year it feels later than it is.

Extra credit to any poetry geek who can spot the homage to John Donne in this poem.

Paradise Sonnet

Our paradise is something less instead

Our Paradise

Wafting comes the mower’s comforting hum,
Assuring all is just as it should be.
Our gates and fences all are rightly plumb,
We celebrate our capability.

New curbs and gutters sluice away wild rain,
Alarms and locks protect our doors from breach,
Our lives arranged to minimize our pain,
Designed to keep us safely out of reach.

But wreaking roots upheave the sidewalk path,
And worms devour our precious woolen thread,
The black and red mold creep into our bath,
Insomnia disturbs our peace in bed.
Despite our engineering and our math,
Our paradise is something less instead.

(2016)


Notes:   Summer-ish weather has come to the Pacific Northwest.  It seems fitting to haul out this old sonnet.

Don’t get me wrong.  I appreciate material comforts and modern conveniences.  Probably even more than most of my friends and colleagues.

I was born in the middle of the last century, and started out life on a farm that was primitive, even for that time.

How primitive?  Well, we milked our own cow, raised our own chickens for eggs, butchered our own hogs, and raised our own vegetables in the garden.

For special occasions and Sunday dinners, Mother would grab one of the slower chickens, chop off its head, and fry it up.

When we sold our farm to the Amish, they took one look at the house, and commenced on an immediate upgrading and remodeling project.

As for me, I was delighted in my new home in a Missouri farm town of 12 thousand souls.  For the first time in my life I had my own room, central heat, and indoor plumbing.

I could finally take a bath in something that wasn’t a galvanized wash tub in the middle of the kitchen floor.  In freshly drawn water that hadn’t been previously used by other members of the family.

I thought I’d died and gone to heaven.  I didn’t even notice that we didn’t have air conditioning, even when the Missouri summer visited its oppressive humidity and triple-digit heat upon us.

So, I am thankful for many things.  I am certainly grateful for indoor plumbing and running water. I am so  thankful I can enjoy sardines from Norway and wine from France.

I am grateful for antibiotics, and the miracles of modern medicine.  I missed the polio epidemic, but just barely.  Had I been just a couple of years older, I could have suffered withered limbs or worse, like the older brothers and sisters of some of my friends who were not so fortunate.

All of my ancestors as far back as I can research were dirt farmers.  I am grateful for a professional job in a meaningful enterprise.  (Inside work.  No heavy lifting.)

Many years ago, when I moved out to Seattle, we settled in the suburbs because — even then — the city was too expensive.  We made a serendipitous choice, because our little suburb has become a highly desirable place for Microsoft employees coming here to live from all over the world.

Heck, in one of those specious magazine “Top 15” lists, our little suburb was once ranked the “Most Friendly Town in America.”

Crime is low.  Violent crime is virtually non-existent.  The weather is temperate.  People take care of their property.  Unemployment is not really an issue. People of seemingly every tribe and tongue live side-by-side here in peace.  You can walk or jog without fear.

Pinch me because sometimes I start to fool myself into thinking we live in paradise.

Yet, it is good to remember that even heaven on earth is not really heaven.

Sonnet Celebrating May

May flowers

When May Bursts Forth

When May bursts forth all moisture and mirth,
And birds bestir while you are still abed,
With everything bent on fostering birth,
And balmy blossoms like a banquet spread
Call to the wanderer weary and wan,
“Close your eyes and breathe and remember nights
When you lay upon the redolent lawn,
And took your bashful taste of love’s delights.”
For though that time is but a glimmer now,
And keenness of the night is now subdued,
A fragrant echo still awakes somehow,
And stirs again a near forgotten mood.
One kiss with wonder could the world endow.
In one embrace you found all you pursued.


NOTES:  The month of May is my personal favorite. My birthday is in May, but even more important, I have a lot of pleasant memories of past Mays.

So brace yourself for an onslaught of slightly sentimental love poems.

(Spring 2017)

©Bobby Ball 2018

 

“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…

 

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.