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Thursday, February 28, 2019

Improvisations

Her name is all things new,
is every bright blessing,
a glimpse of spring
through the rake of ice-spikes
on the rain-gutter.

*

Fifty almost:
the old goatee
comes in white-gray
as a snow-clotted sky
in January.

*

I cupped the tip
of Donna's cigarette
so she could light it
in yesterday's
arctic gale.

*

I want to become
the person who listens
to every day's message:
life on life's terms,
people on people's terms.

*

Her voice nudged
sunflowers, morning-glories
out of my polar soul.
Her eyes held memories
of the strangest music.

Monday, February 25, 2019

Letter to Younger Poets

Read until your eyes fall out. Read poetry not written by yourself. Read William Shakespeare, read Catullus, read Ntozake Shange, read Charles Bukowski, Emily Dickinson, Theodore Roethke, Mary Oliver, Countee Cullen, Longfellow, Leigh Hunt, Ginsberg, Naomi Shihab Nye. Zagajewski, Neruda, Baudelaire, Han Shan, Senghor. Read everybody in sight. If you're over 25 (heck, if you're over eighteen) and you don't own at least a hundred books of poetry, please do your best to remedy the situation!

I'd recommend reading both Ted Kooser's Poetry Home Repair Manual and Stephen Fry's The Ode Less Travelled.  A poet, even if not a formalist, is someone in love with language, and eager to learn how it "works." Kooser and Fry both have many helpful thoughts on "getting started." (Also helpful, in a lighter-hearted way, Kenneth Koch's Making Your Own Days.)

It won't hurt, occasionally, to imitate the fixed stars of the poetic universe. (I know, this is a blasphemous suggestion for anyone caught up in the cult of "originality." But knowing the voices of others does, paradoxically, help you find your own voice. It gives you flexibility, a set of new tools, new "tricks" if you will.) It helps the poet newly launched from shore to know what others have done in her or his chosen art, and to learn as much as can be learned from them. As Stephen Fry notes, what musician doesn't listen to music? Is there a guitarist of skill in the world who has never heard of Segovia, Clapton, Prince?

Let your own enthusiasm do the work for you. Find out for yourself about magazines and open readings! Be self-propulsive (but also unsentimentally clear-headed about the fact that magazines reject a thousand times oftener than they accept.) If you're in a big city with a university, it shouldn't be hard to find an open-mike night somewhere. If you have the internet, finding publications is fairly easy, and with the Submittable app, it's not hard to submit anymore. No more manila envelopes and SSAEs!

Be willing to be taught. Take a course, find a workshop. And find someone firm but charitable, someone who has the good of the poem in mind.

Love what you're doing, and don't expect money from it. (Ted Kooser says that the most successful poet rarely gets remuneration for a poem that would enable her or him to buy a bag of groceries. Not everyone is Maya Angelou, Mary Oliver, Billy Collins. Or Seamus Heaney! Most of us will not have our doors banged down by representatives of the Nobel committee or of the popular press!)

Be enthusiastic, eager, tireless in your writing, voracious in your reading. Be sure that poetry is something you want to do. Say what you have to say. If your voice is urgent, tenacious, articulate, and passionate enough, it will be heard!

But also (this is important!) be humble, be gracious, be kind, and be willing to fail miserably. All of us do fail; it's part and parcel of trying hard.

Is there anything I'm forgetting?

Oh yes. Your first draft is not sacrosanct. We poets do not wake up first thing in the morning speaking with the tongues of angels. Most of us need to work at making the words sound clear and fluent, seem compelling and inevitable. Work means revision. Work means a second draft, a third draft, a twenty-ninth draft. Work means looking at something you wrote ten or twenty years ago, and being willing to tweak, to tinker, to try and try again. We move, halting and encumbered, in the direction of grace. It is worth the serious striving.

Thanks for listening. Peace and light.

Wednesday, February 20, 2019

I Am Not a Pinball Wizard

I grew up with pinball machines. In 1980,
when I was eleven and joined the Salesian
Boys Club, all they had was pinball. Despite
my frantic flipping, it would take mere seconds
for that outsized ball-bearing to go down the chute.

Then came Space Invaders, that early video game
where aliens, incandescent parabolas with eyes,
descended from on high in a slow
but relentless phalanx, unless you were good
and annihilated every last one.

A year or two later came Asteroids, where you had
to blast space-rocks to smithereens
and avoid the game-ending collision
with your spacecraft. Then things got complicated.
I never had good hand-eye coordination
to begin with, so the charm of these games
soon wore thin. I got into books in a big way
around age fourteen, and they always stuck by me.

Books cost ten bucks, cheaper if bought used
in one of Harvard Square's many basement bookstores.
Books were kind to me. They never flashed
a GAME OVER sign to taunt me as a loser.

Novels and poems at first, then just poems.
Seamus Heaney. Dylan Thomas. Arthur Rimbaud.
T S Eliot. Wallace Stevens. Hart Crane.

There is no Frigate like a Book, says Emily.
She's right. What noisy busy distraction
of current technology can hope to compete?

Thursday, February 14, 2019

Notes for a Litany

Let us be solid
and sloppy,
resolute but able
to abide imperfections.

Let us be generous
to the cranky misfit,
large-hearted
to the curmudgeon,
kind to the bedlamite.

Let us acknowledge,
even embrace,
the surly delinquent
in ourselves.

Let us cherish
this palpable mess
of a life
proceeding
in tatters of hope
toward a goal
in the limitless distance.

Let us be alert
to the felicitous
mishegas of the commonplace,
attentive to the ragtag rosary
of out-of-place
graces: the shy
librarian's random smile,
conversation with a stranger
waiting for a bus,
the churchless benediction
of the moon
as a shining dime in a gutterpuddle.

Let us offer silence and love
to the stones of Cooke's Hollow,
to the sparrows of Pleasant Street,
to the genial priest
of St John's Episcopal
in her Lenten vestments.

Let us drive
our fender-bent box
of ballyhoo and bones
into a spot
by the mist-blessed sea
and rest for a spell.

Let us play.

Monday, February 11, 2019

And Tomorrow, and the Earth

Despite the toxic tribble's daily blurt
about the greatness of the stars and stripes
(especially the white ones), I take heart
knowing that secret graces, tender hopes

still break from seeds, take root, and strive to sprout
in inauspicious February soil.
The planet's axis tilts toward spring. I doubt
the newsmakers, the peddlers of turmoil,

the hucksters and the tricksters. I believe
in this slow silent growth, this peaceful change
from winter's dogma, bald rigidities,

to fertile questions generating love,
to wide compassion for the fresh and strange,
to sun that melts our cold complacencies.

Someday Soon

I should try Church of Our Saviour a mile down the road rambunctiously progressive or so I hear even by Episcopalian standards I shou...