Tuesday, April 30, 2013

National Poetry Month—The Poems on Poetry

We will wrap up National Poetry Month with some reflections on the art of poetry.  Not my favorite subject actually.  I also am not fond of novels in which the hero is a struggling—and misunderstood—novelist.  Too much inside baseball and naval gazing.  Write what you know we were all taught, but hopefully any artist should know more than just self-absorption.  Of course there were exceptions.  Thomas Wolfe’s Look Homeward Angel literally changed my teenaged life.  Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises in which Jake is more concerned with his dysfunctional sexual plumbing than his writer’s block.
It’s the same with poetry.   A writer can get so wrapped up in his or her craft and personal experience that sometimes there doesn’t seem to be much to write about except than damn blank page or to explain/justify wasting your life writing what plainly no one wants to read.
The result of giving into that urge is, inevitably, a lot of shitty poetry.  But then there is a lot of shitty poetry about any topic you can think of.  Many pitch.  Few a called up The Show.
However many fine bards and wordsmiths going back to classical antiquity have engaged in the practice of poetry about poetry.  There is even a Latin name for the genre—ars poetica which translates loosely to “on the nature of poetry.”
So today we will take a stroll amid some modern masters and stop by one hopeless schmuck to see what they have to say on the subject.
Undoubtedly Archibald MacLeish had the best known take on the subject if only because it became the keystone for many a college lit poetry survey course.  He even used that fancy pants Latin.
Ars Poetica
A poem should be palpable and mute   
As a globed fruit,

As old medallions to the thumb,

Silent as the sleeve-worn stone
Of casement ledges where the moss has grown—

A poem should be wordless   
As the flight of birds.


A poem should be motionless in time   
As the moon climbs,

Leaving, as the moon releases
Twig by twig the night-entangled trees,

Leaving, as the moon behind the winter leaves,   
Memory by memory the mind—

A poem should be motionless in time   
As the moon climbs.


A poem should be equal to:
Not true.

For all the history of grief
An empty doorway and a maple leaf.

For love
The leaning grasses and two lights above the sea—

A poem should not mean   
But be.

Archibald MacLeish 

Marianne Moore, the Godmother of modern American poetry took a typically down to earth crack at it.


I, too, dislike it: there are things that are important beyond
      all this fiddle.
   Reading it, however, with a perfect contempt for it, one
      discovers in
   it after all, a place for the genuine.
      Hands that can grasp, eyes
      that can dilate, hair that can rise
         if it must, these things are important not because a

high-sounding interpretation can be put upon them but because
      they are
   useful. When they become so derivative as to become
   the same thing may be said for all of us, that we
      do not admire what
      we cannot understand: the bat
         holding on upside down or in quest of something to

eat, elephants pushing, a wild horse taking a roll, a tireless
      wolf under
   a tree, the immovable critic twitching his skin like a horse
      that feels a flea, the base-
   ball fan, the statistician—
      nor is it valid
         to discriminate against “business documents and

school-books”; all these phenomena are important. One must make
      a distinction
   however: when dragged into prominence by half poets, the
      result is not poetry,
   nor till the poets among us can be
     “literalists of
      the imagination”—love
         insolence and triviality and can present

for inspection, “imaginary gardens with real toads in them,”
      shall we have
   it. In the meantime, if you demand on the one hand,
   the raw material of poetry in
      all its rawness and
      that which is on the other hand
         genuine, you are interested in poetry.

Marianne Moore

That excellent obstetrician from Patterson, New Jersey, Dr. William Carlos Williams had, I believe, his tongue ensconced firmly in his cheek when he produced this effusion.
The Uses of Poetry
I’ve fond anticipation of a day
 O’erfilled with pure diversion presently,
For I must read a lady poesy
The while we glide by many a leafy bay,

Hid deep in rushes, where at random play
The glossy black winged May-flies, or whence flee
Hush-throated nestlings in alarm,
Whom we have idly frighted with our boat's long sway.

For, lest o’ersaddened by such woes as spring
To rural peace from our meek onward trend,
What else more fit? We’ll draw the latch-string

And close the door of sense; then satiate wend,
On poesys transforming giant wing,
To worlds afar whose fruits all anguish mend.

William Carlos Williams

And finally we turn to the most deservedly obscure of early 21st Century mid-continent American poets for this insight into process.
How a Poem Came to Be

An inauspicious lump of gravel
            tossed in the tumbler,
            turned, turned,
            until gleaming smooth,
            handsome moss agate
            admired and mounted
on a new bolo tie slide.

A thing of pride and beauty.

But how much more did it yearn
            to be a geode
            struck once just so,
            split to reveal
            the perfect,
            dazzling crystal. 

--Patrick Murfin

Monday, April 29, 2013

National Poetry Month—e. e. cummings "somewhere i have never traveled"

We have reached the penultimate entry into this year’s National Poetry Month series and I am somewhat flummoxed to discover that not one entry concerned romantic love.  I am not entirely sure what that says about me and my taste.
There is some evidence that the general popular opinion about poetry is that it is only useful or interesting insofar as it can get you laid.  Or to wallow in self-pity after being dumped.  Yet I don’t think I have ever written a poem to my beloved, although I did commit a couple in the self-pity mode when I was drinking heavily and haunting the most miserable dives in Chicago.
But if I am going to fairly represent the broad range of poetic expression, I can’t very well ignore it.  So I went looking.  And found some wonderful, familiar verses by Will Shakespeare, Bobby Burns, both of the Brownings, Poe, and many others.
But I settled on a less well known work by one of my personal favorites—the quirky e. e. cummings.  Something in me quickens by his way of looking at love kind of sideways.
somewhere i have never traveled
somewhere i have never traveled, gladly beyond
any experience, your eyes have their silence:
in your most frail gesture are things which enclose me,
or which i cannot touch because they are too near

your slightest look easily will unclose me
though i have closed myself as fingers,
you open always petal by petal myself as Spring opens
(touching skillfully, mysteriously) her first rose

or if your wish be to close me, i and
my life will shut very beautifully, suddenly,
as when the heart of this flower imagines
the snow carefully everywhere descending;

nothing which we are to perceive in this world equals
the power of your intense fragility: whose texture
compels me with the color of its countries,
rendering death and forever with each breathing

(i do not know what it is about you that closes
and opens; only something in me understands
the voice of your eyes is deeper than all roses)
nobody, not even the rain, has such small hands
–e. e. cummings

Sunday, April 28, 2013

National Poetry Month—An Unknown Proletarian "We Have Fed You All for A Thousand Years"

Today is Workers’ Memorial Day which commemorates those who died at work or as a result of their labor. The date was chosen because it is the anniversary of the Occupational Health and Safety Act in the United States and commemorates the day of a construction accident in Connecticut that claimed 28 lives. 
The first observance actually originated in 1984 by Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE), but has been embraced by American labor and has spread across the globe.
Beyond being a solemn memorial to the fallen it promotes safer working conditions for the living.
Some folks think that horrendous industrial catastrophes like the infamous Triangle Shirtwaist Fire or the many mine cave-ins and fires are things of the distant past.  But events of the past week lay that spurious notion to rest.  We have had yet another mass disaster at a Bangladesh garment factory—the third over the past few months—which has killed a thousand or more mostly female workers in a building collapse.  And here in the U.S. a fertilizer plant explosion in West, Texas obliterated much of a town and killed 14, including 11 firefighters responding to the emergency, wounded over 200.
Workers continue to die not only in mass casualty situations, but singly on construction sites, vehicle crashes, and every sort of horrid industrial accident.  Hundreds, probably thousands, perish every year from disease caused by exposure to toxic chemicals, dust, polluted air, and other environmental hazards on the job.
The tragedy is compounded by the fact that many of these deaths are preventable—if safety and the concern for workers’ health were not routinely placed at the bottom of concern, far below the maximization of immediate profits.  Workers are still disposable commodities for too many employers and the politicians who enable them.
On April 18, 1909 a poem ascribed to an Unknown Proletarian was published in the Industrial Union Bulletin, a publication of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW).  It was soon included in early editions of Songs to Fan the Flames of Discontent, better known as the unions Little Red Songbook.  The words were set to music by Rudolph Von Liebich and the IWW published the sheet music which remained in print for decades.
We Have Fed You All for a Thousand Years was performed by Utah Phillips and many other labor troubadours. 
Whether as a song or as a poem the words remain as powerful and true today as they were over a 100 years ago.
We Have Fed You All for a Thousand Years
We have fed you all for a thousand years
And you hail us still unfed.
Though there's never a dollar of all your wealth
But marks the workers dead.
We have yielded our best to give you rest
And you lie on crimson wool
But if blood be the price of all your wealth
Good God we have paid in full!

There is never a mine blown skyward now
But we’re buried alive for you.
There’s never a wreck drifts shoreward now
But we are its ghastly crew.
Go reckon our dead by the forges red
And the factories where we spin.
If blood be the price of your cursed wealth
Good God we have paid it in!

We have fed you all for a thousand years
For that was our doom, you know,
From the days when you chained us in your fields
To the strike a week ago.
You have taken our lives, and our babies and wives
And we’re told it’s your legal share.
But if blood be the price of your lawful wealth
Good God we bought it fair!

—An Unknown Proletarian