Odds and Ends (and a Poem)

June 19, 2007

Find below evidence of my growing web-savviness in the Regina Spektor live performance of “Samson” I found on YouTube:

The quality leaves a bit to be desired, but I opted for this bootleg over both the music video (which is ok) and the produced live version from a music festival in April. I found this more real somehow. Whatever that means. If you like the song, you can get it here.  

Also, DawgE will live! She is without parasites or any real health problems. She had some gland issues that needed to be flushed out. And I should tell you that I did not enjoy putting a headlock on the poor girl as the vet swabbed out her rectal cavity with two well-lubed fingers. The dirty look afterwards, however, was masterfully expressive. Who needs language when you have daggers like hers? Plus, I got shunned for a few hours afterwards. We’re good now, though, thanks to a treat and a long morning run.

That’s about all on the odds and ends front. As for today’s poem, it’s a piece from Yusef Komunyakaa’s Talking Dirty to the Gods. A brief bio on Komunyakaa can be found here. Though this is not the poem I wanted to post, it’s a strong piece worth the time to examine. The book is taut, and Komunyakaa imposes a systematic design to both the form and organization of the individual pieces within the collection. Each poem is four quatrains long, which adds a cohesion and a design befitting the abundance of gods, goddesses, and the geometry of nature the poems tackle. Here’s the bibliographic information:

Komunyakaa, Yusef. Talking Dirty to the Gods. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2000.

And here’s the piece:

Body of a Dog

(Cadavere di un Cane)

 

He’s chasing a hare.

In eleven or twelve countries

The philosophy of the hourglass

Has turned into weathered stone,

 

But he races the same sun

Through threadbare silhouettes.

If there were human prayers

Left, they wouldn’t reach him

 

In Vulcan’s dream come true.

Did he know when vicissitude

Eased over hills like mist or scent

Of a bitch? Given another month,

 

He would have made the boy

Into a very good master.

He’s treed his own ghost

In a nearby poppy field.   

With “Body of a Dog,” I think we’re being asked to confront our transitory existence on earth. Referring to the “philosophy of the hourglass,” “Vulcan’s dream” and closing with the surreal and vivid image of the dog in the “poppy field,” Komunyakaa uses the ethereal and lofty connotations in philosophy, dreams, and poppies to contrast against the penultimate sentence, which spans the end of the third stanza into the first line of the fourth and helps us realize more clearly the importance of the hourglass in the first stanza. If the dog were given that month, things would have been different. In essence, it’s potential unrealized. Time had run out for the dog (and the boy, too, in a different way), and as it is those plans are left unfulfilled. 

As always, there’s plenty more to say, but I will shut it here. Feel free to drop your own thoughts on the piece or question mine.    

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Shoreline Sure Am

June 15, 2007

We’re reaching record temps for the area this week, and as I griped in a previous post, my upper apartment is sweltering. Though I found this morning some mangled and ill-shaped screens on my steps that I can only assume are meant for my windows, it’s too little too late, and I’ll have to wait until this evening to cool the joint down. 

But here’s a great link to a poetry website that, in addition to showing the text, has a limited selection of classic work being read by a pretty well-honed reader. I’ve listened to the whole catalog, and it’s worth it. There are no downloads or anything like that. It’s supersimple point-and-click. Also, there’s an email address to drop suggestions their way. Enjoy the site, and tell ’em Puddle sent you. Just kidding. I always wanted to say that, you know, like my name opening great and secret doors. Or a speakeasy and illegal gambling den filled with men in tailored clothes and flappers dancing on plywood floors.

Keep on, all. And tune in soon for a Yusef Komunyakaa poem with a brief gloss.

Puddlehead 

     


PSA: Poetry Service Announcement

June 11, 2007

I’ve found that it often takes a while for a poem to circulate, let alone a whole collection getting its feet under itself. “Young” poets are often in their 30s and 40s, and books languish with low sales, years between second printings (if the book is lucky enough for a second print). Poetry, for a number of reasons not relevant here, has gotten somewhat of a bad reputation as the activities of depressives, wimps, or the self-absorbed. While I’m sure there are depressives, wimps, and self-absorbed poets out there, some of our greatest poems are, in essence, hymns; they are praises to the small and the great of our lives. See the work of Ilya Kaminski, for example, in his collection Dancing in Odessa. While he doesn’t shy away from tragedy or flinch when recalling brutality, the poems are, strangely at times, expositions in the human ability to love and persevere regardless of the external circumstances. This is but one example of some poetry that refuses to buckle. Instead, the poems witness without despair. It’s powerful stuff and not the “Woe is me” so many readers expect from their verse. 

On the wimpfront: False. I have seen poets fight. Some of them are good at it. Scarier yet, many of those who are good at it, enjoy doing it. But that’s neither here nor there. Consider a better form of non-wimp in Frederico Garcia Lorca who, for debatable motives, was executed in Spain. Or Russian poet Osip Mandelstam who was arrested twice by Soviet forces and ultimately died in a transit camp where he was being held for “counter-revolutionary activities.” Here’s a fragment of an untitled poem from 1937, a year before his death:

You’re still alive, you’re not alone yet—

she’s still beside you, with her empty hands,

and a joy reaches you both across immense plains

through mists and hunger and flying snow.

 

Opulent poverty, regal indigence!

Live in it calmly, be at peace.

Blessed are these days, these nights,

and innocent is the labor’s singing sweetness.

 

Miserable is the man who runs from a dog

in his shadow, whom a wind reaps at the knees,

and poor the one who holds out his rag of life

to beg mercy of a shadow.  

Translated from Russian by Clarence Brown and W.S. Merwin, the poem captures the desperation of the speaker’s plight while balancing the hope found in the speaker’s female companion’s “empty hands.” Definitely a not-wimp.

As for self-absorption, well, that’s endemic, and you can hardly blame poets alone for a flaw such as this.

This brief take is, of course, not meant to be comprehensive. Nor is it meant to be taken too seriously. My main hope is that we can scrap the whole high school memorization of a Shakespeare sonnet forced upon us by well-meaning but ill-informed teachers. Poetry can be a vital energy for our aesthetic and moral development; it can slow us down long enough to see the poetry in our lives, in the grind of the predawn garbage truck, in the call of a far-off dog barking down the moon.


I *Heart* Literary Journals

June 7, 2007

One of my favorite things about being a writer is the sense of tradition I feel whenever I fire up a new Word Document or take pen to paper, jotting in my illegible scrawl some thought, some image, I will one day try to craft into a piece. The act of writing is the act of joining a community that spans time and space, and cannot be limited by age, race, or era. When you write, you join a conversation. A “California Supermarket” that shows up in one of your poems cannot be seperated from Ginsberg’s. We write from, or in response to, the views of those who came before us. For me, I write from Cormac McCarthy’s driving prose, from Yusef Komunyakaa’s lyrical visions, and from Wallace Steven’s technical precision. And, if you write in English, you cannot escape the Great Bard’s impossible shadow. Nor, for that matter, can you escape Emily Dickinson or Uncle Walt, or T.S. Eliot or whomever. The point is is that those tried-and-true English-speaking writers (not to mention the many great non-English writers) have left some vast footprints, and it’s important to know where we come from. That’s what our anthologies and favorite college texts help us with. And I love revisiting certain authors whose work continues to mean so much to me.

Equally as important, though, is to know where our contemporaries are. This point is why I think it is so important that we nourish what literary journals we can. I don’t only mean with our submissions but mean as well with our monetary support through subscriptions. Too many dedicated editors and their quality publications fold for lack of funds. Often times, these journals rely solely on subscription fees to keep afloat. There are only so many grants to go around, and many editors find themselves unable to keep their journals afloat for lack of subscribers. Yet, there never seems to be any shortage of submissions.

But, it’s not charity that drives me to subscribe to journals when I can; it’s greed. I love reading what my contemporaries are doing, love finding some gem of a poem that sends me spilling beyond my boundaries. I love when, a year later, I see a first book published by someone whose poem moved me when I read it in a journal. I am not advocating any particular journal, mind you. But I do advocate buying a back issue of a journal or magazine you might submit to. For me, it’s a good way to get an idea if my work would fit, but I am also exposed to more work, more writers I might not have read if it weren’t for their appearance in said journal. And, if I like the mag overall and have the funds, I’ll drop the 15 or so dollars for a year subscription.

The other side of writing well is reading well. Many of my books and magazines are annotated to the point of sin. There are cross-reference marks, question marks, lines I love underlined softly in pencil. That way, I’m actively involved . I’m a participant in making meaning of what I read. Not only is this fun, it helps me as a writer. If I am careless as I read, I will be careless when I write. That does no one any kindness.

For my part, I read as I’d like to be read. Sure it’s a remake of childhood’s golden rule, but I tell you what, whatever you read has cost someone a lot of time, effort, and energy. Plus, it might be damn good and, if you’re rushing, you’ll miss the greatness. And there’s a lot of greatness in journals and magazines and other small presses.

If you like, I’d be happy to comment on a few of my favorites, but I am not advocating any particular press or magazine. Rather, I believe writers should read nearly as much as they write. And just about every University has a magazine filled with worthwhile prose and poetry.

Anyway! I’m off to watch the rest of the NBA game. And then off to read and to bed and in the morning…Friday, which is Billiards day for me. Nine ball run, come on! Whoot!


On Recalling A Smarmy Man

June 6, 2007

I left home when I was 18, moved out to Colorado, got a few part-time jobs in order to scramble the cash needed to upgrade my camping equipment so I could, within the year, travel the Southwest. Which I did, and which is a story for another day. I only mention this to lead here: While I was camping outside Taos, I somehow got invited to a writer’s party. Since it was a decision between hanging out with writers or hanging alone by my sputtering pinion fire in late November, it was really no decision at all.

Yet, within minutes of getting handed a glass of wine and hating how my bootheels clacked across the hardwood, I wished I was home, as in back at camp, where at least I could smoke cigarettes in peace, journal, and enjoy the cooling high desert night. I was slightly intimidated by these people. They were well-dressed, older, and clearly moved in educated and urbane circles that I had yet to encountered. To be fair to myself, I was nineteen, reading everything I could get my hands on, and just starting to put together some sort of aesthetic, some system of beliefs and values that would inform my writing, my reading, and my thoughts on literature, life, and just who I wanted to be. And what I learned that night was who I wasn’t and who, gratefully, I could never be.   

After a while, a smarmy loafers-and-no-socks, white jeans and braided belt kind of guy started in on me, asking pointed questions about college (which I had yet to attend), what I thought of this, that, and the other book he clearly knew I knew nothing about, etc, etc. Long and short, I was his intellectual sparring partner and vastly out-gunned. The group I had been chatting with awkwardly laughed and drifted away.

“So,” He asked, “What do you intend to do with your writing?”

What I told him I knew even then was ridiculous, pompous, and every bit as smarmish and mean-spirited as he was. But I wanted to find a way to smear the condescension on his face into shock, indignation, anything but that patronizing smirk.  

“I intend,” I said slowly, “To be the only American writer that matters.”

Which I knew then and know still is complete bullshit. I don’t want that. Though I didn’t know what I wanted, I knew it wasn’t that. To write, travel, and live well was about the extent of my plans. Other than that, I couldn’t say, and now, years later, that’s still about as far as the master plan goes.

But I can tell you this: that experience made me realize the importance of keeping a balance on the inside. I am never as great nor as hopeless a man or writer as it may feel in any given moment. I plug on. I write on. That’s it. I judge harshly my work and revise. I’ve learned to see writing like any other job. I’m like an accountant but with words. Or a carpenter, a pipefitter, whatever. 

That smarmy twit taught me was that I’d rather been known as a good man than a great writer. I’d like both, of course, but would not sacrifice the former for the latter. We write best from love and praise, from a place where mystery sings the world’s hymn, and we’re lucky enough to hear it and transcribe the results. 

So thanks, Smarmy Man, I appreciate what you’ve done for me.        


A Glance at Jack Gilbert’s “A Stubborn Ode”

June 5, 2007

For those of you who are unfamiliar with Jack Gilbert, please take a look at the bio link in the previous post. For those of you who know about his work or just don’t care, read on!

For a few years now one of my favorite poets has been Pittsburgh’s own Jack Gilbert. According to his bio, he is currently living in Western Massachusetts, and his work reads, for me at least, as a sensitive yet tough-minded exposition on the realities of rust, decrepitude, and the sufferings of our day-to-day lives. Yet, a sense of grace and acceptance, a tenuous dignity, belies the heartache and very real sorrow that accompanies his speakers’ lives. Enough with the lead-in! Please note the bibliographic information and if you like this piece below, I bet you’ll want to get a copy of the collection for yourself.

Gilbert, Jack. The Great Fires: Poems 1982-1992. New York: Knopf, 1994.

Here’s the poem:

A Stubborn Ode

 

 

All of it. The sane woman under the bed with the rat

that is licking off the peanut butter she puts on her

front teeth for him. The beggars of Calcutta blinding

their children while somewhere people are rich

and eating with famous friends and having running water

in their fine houses. Michiko is buried in Kamakura.

The tired farmers thresh barley all day under the feet

of donkeys amid the merciless power of the sun.

The beautiful women grow old, our hearts moderate.

All of us wane, knowing things could have been different.

When Gordon was released from the madhouse, he could

not find Hayden to say goodbye. As he left past

Hall Eight, he saw the face in a basement window,

tears running down the cheeks. And I say, nevertheless.

  

The stubbornness here is the speaker’s refusal to succumb to the sorrow suggested by the “sane woman,” “the beggars,” and the “farmers,” yet, at line 6 Gilbert moves into his own biography to make more poignant and power the final sentence of the 14th line. Michiko was his wife, who had died from cancer, and Gilbert manages to include her passing (by mentioning her burial city) amongst the other injustices and sorrows that befall the living. Here, then, Gilbert’s speaker is associating himself with the survivors, with those who are “waning.” And in doing so, the poem seems to suggest that, despite the “blinding,” “the power of the sun,” and seperation of friends, the speaker will accept it all without qualification, explanation, or complaint.

 

There’s a lot more to say, especially about form here, but I’d rather stop now, and let the piece work itself into your mind and heart. Feel free to use the comment feature to open a dialogue about this piece, what you like, don’t like, don’t get, or where I’ve misread in my scant gloss above.                            

 


Walking the Dog

June 4, 2007

walking_the_dog.jpg

I’m off to walk the dog, all. But again the heavens grow dark, and I want to get a good long jaunt in before the rain. But, to fulfill a promise from a few days ago, I intend on posting a poem from Jack Gilbert’s The Great Fires. He’s a fine poet who offers a rather unique take on suffering, life, and the grace inherent in acceptance of the world as it is. A while ago, he published “A Brief for the Defense,” the opening poem in his 2005 book, Refusing Heaven, in The New Yorker. And the poem we’ll look at is in many ways a precusor to that piece.  If you’ve the time to spare, click here for a quick biography. And here is a link to another great poem from Refusing Heaven.

Ok, the Dawg E and me are off for a tour of new neighborhood smells. As a good friend once said, “She’s reading the paper, catching up on the news of things passing.” But I gather lines and phrases on these walks and enjoy the wanderings through the streets.

Stay (car)tooned, and I’ll get the poem up shortly.

Puddlehead