Grip Down And Begin To Awaken

spring-lilac-bush

A Prayer in Spring

By Robert Frost

Oh, give us pleasure in the flowers to-day;
And give us not to think so far away
As the uncertain harvest; keep us here
All simply in the springing of the year.

Oh, give us pleasure in the orchard white,
Like nothing else by day, like ghosts by night;
And make us happy in the happy bees,
The swarm dilating round the perfect trees.

And make us happy in the darting bird
That suddenly above the bees is heard,
The meteor that thrusts in with needle bill,
And off a blossom in mid air stands still.

For this is love and nothing else is love,
The which it is reserved for God above
To sanctify to what far ends He will,
But which it only needs that we fulfill.


It was my birthday this week, I turned a speed limit.   A most excellent age to be I have decided! Gone are the pretensions that I’ll get in better shape and run a marathon again.  Instead, I’ve settled comfortably into a modest layer of middle age fat and come to grips that better only implies getting more comfortable with my infirmities and eccentricities. The good thing is mostly everything still works as a factory original. There are only a few age spots on the chassis and though it’s in need of an oil change,  that can be arranged.

A birthday tradition going back a number of years is for me to see Greg Brown at the Cedar Cultural Center in Minneapolis.   The Cedar is a miserable, uncomfortable, stifling hot theater whose air conditioning never works because it’s a non-profit.  It is located in the arm pit of the West Bank of the University of Minnesota.  Neither he, nor the venue, nor the aging hippies attending, have changed much, the smell of pot overwhelming on the patio during intermission.

Why do I put up with going to the Cedar when there are umpteen better venues to see live music in the Twin Cities?   It’s because it’s where I have to go to see Greg. I like to remember when sitting on folding chairs in a shit hole made me feel right at home.  It grounds me that I haven’t gotten too big for my breeches. I can sweat right alongside the white-collar ex-hippies who all wish he would give up on this place and go play the Turf Club where the toilets don’t have a line half way around the lobby and the whole place doesn’t stink of urine from the homeless pissing on the concrete outside The Weinery next door. (Wish I was making this up, but even fiction can’t get that creative).

Brown plays the Cedar every year around my birthday.  He has the current distinction of being the musician I have seen play live, more than any other, only because I have been going to see him since 1979 on the West Bank. Back then at the long since defunct Coffee House Extempore, the venue that the musicians headlining on Prairie Home Companion would often play for tip money the night before going on air with Garrison Keillor.

I have aged with Greg.  I  remember him as a lean, leather clad long-haired hipster, then as a rotund, overweight middle-aged hick in overalls, to now a slimmed down old man in a felt hat and faded sport coat.  I remarked last night when he walked on stage, “damn he’s lost some weight” and the three overweight men all around me, looked at me wishing they had too.

Greg is not a great singer.  He’s an average guitar player.  What he is, first and foremost is an outstanding story-teller.  His songs get under my skin.  His music is the music of the midwest, the music of my landscape, the music of my experience.  It is music that has marked time in my life and will continue to do so.   Greg is the father of Pieta Brown, also one of my favorite musicians.  Great songsmanhip runs in their blood.

Greg talked about his love of poetry and specifically William Carlos Williams last night.  He admitted he lifted the title for his song Spring and All from WCW before he played it.  I think WCW would be honored.  Although Brown’s lyrics are not in any way related to the poem, they have one thing in common; each is the genuine voice of the artist that created them.


 

Spring And All

by William Carlos Williams

the road to the contagious hospital
under the surge of the blue
mottled clouds driven from the
northeast — a cold wind. Beyond, the
waste of broad, muddy fields
brown with dried weeds, standing and fallen

patches of standing water
the scattering of tall trees

All along the road the reddish
purplish, forked, upstanding, twiggy
stuff of bushes and small trees
with dead, brown leaves under them
leafless vines —

Lifeless in appearance, sluggish
dazed spring approaches —

They enter the new world naked,
cold, uncertain of all
save that they enter. All about them
the cold, familiar wind —

Now the grass, tomorrow
the stiff curl of wild carrot leaf

One by one objects are defined —
It quickens: clarity, outline of leaf

But now the stark dignity of
entrance — Still, the profound change
has come upon them: rooted they
grip down and begin to awaken

This City….Like A Garment

Wayne Moran Photography
Downtown Minneapolis from the base of the Stone Arch bridge crossing the Mississippi River

Composed Upon Westminster Bridge

by William Wordsworth

Earth has not anything to show more fair:
Dull would he be of soul who could pass by
A sight so touching in its majesty:
This City now doth, like a garment, wear
The beauty of the morning: silent, bare,
Ships, towers, domes, theatres, and temples lie
Open unto the fields, and to the sky;
All bright and glittering in the smokeless air.
Never did sun more beautifully steep
In his first splendour, valley, rock, or hill;
Ne’er saw I, never felt, a calm so deep!
The river glideth at his own sweet will:
Dear God! the very houses seem asleep;
And all that mighty heart is lying still!


Composed Upon Westminster Bridge is one of Wordsworth most popular sonnets.   What makes it remarkable is that it is an important shift in poetic ideals where the cityscape has replaced the pastoral countryside or nature as the inspiration for beauty. Wordsworth captures the warmth and pride he has in the city of London and the kinship he feels with his countryman in the poem.

Eighty years later T. S. Elliot makes an unnamed city (probably London where he was living at the time) a central character in The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.  This time it is not a place of beauty, it is a place of grit and grime, possibly only existing in the poet’s imagination, a tawdry place that men of certain ages like to slouch about in.

My attempt at connecting purpose with place in my sonnet In The Hand of Heaven deals with the idea that we are shaped by the places we live, the place we call home.  The idea that both the city and its inhabitants have an obligation to look after each other, an investment in each other, a responsibility to take care of where we live and who we live with.

No poet has taken that metaphor further than William Carlos Williams in his surreal and unfinished poem Paterson.   Paterson is one of my least favorite things that Williams wrote. It reads to me like an inner dialogue, prose not meant for outside interpretation.  It is rambling, disjointed, sometimes illogical, in ways much like our own inner dialogue often is and in that way creates a bit of a voyeuristic fascination.  He allegedly wrote it as his kryptonite to T. S. Elliot’s The Waste Land, to counter what was popular and build upon his voice that I find much more eloquent in his book Cora in Hell.  But I like his premise, that a man (or woman) is a city and a city is a man.   It brings humanity back into the equation of the concrete, bricks, buildings, parks, roads and bridges that we live amongst in our daily lives.   William Carlos Williams loved his city, Paterson, N. J. and its inhabitants.  His poem Paterson is in my mind his love song to the place he called home. He describes a Paterson that is imperfect, complicated, incomplete, but human, just like the men and women who inhabit it.

Here’s a couple of brief snippets from Paterson….


Excerpts from Paterson

by William Carlos Williams

Author’s notes:

Paterson is a long poem in four parts — that a man in
himself is a city, beginning, seeking v achieving and con-
cluding his life in ways which the various aspects of a
city may embody— if imaginatively conceived — any city,
all the details of which may be made to voice his most
intimate convictions. Part One introduces the elemental
character of the place. The Second Part comprises the
modern replicas. Three will seek a language to make them
vocal, and Four, the river below the falls, will be remi-
niscent of episodes — all that any one man may achieve in
a lifetime.

Paterson

Preface

“Rigor of beauty is the quest. But how will you find beauty
when it is locked in the mind past all remonstrance?”

To make a start,

put of particulars

and make them general, rolling

up the sum, by defective means —

Sniffing the trees,

just another dog

among a lot of dogs. What

else is there? And to do?

The .rest-have run out —

after the rabbits.

Only the lame stands— on

three legs. Scratch front and back.

Deceive and eat. Dig

a musty bone

For the beginning is assuredly

the end — since we know nothing, pure

and simple, beyond

our own complexities.

Yet there is
no return: rolling up out of chaos,
a nine months’ wonder, the city
the man, an identity — it can’t be
otherwise — an

interpenetration, both ways. Rolling

 

40

Book Two

Sunday in the Park

Outside

outside myself

there is a world,
he rumbled, subject to my incursions
— a world

(to me) at rest,

which I approach

concretely —

The scene’s the Park
upon the rock,
female to the city

— upon whose body Paterson instructs his thoughts
(concretely)

— late spring,
a Sunday afternoon!

— and goes by the footpath to the cliff (counting:
the proof)

himself among the others,
— treads there the same stones
on which their feet slip as they climb,
paced by their dogs!

laughing, calling to each other-
Wait for me!

152

You ought to see this place.

There was a hellicopter (?) flying all over the river today
looking for the body of a suicide, some student, some girl
about my age (she says . a Hindu Princess). It was in the
papers this morning but I didn’t take notice. You ought to
have seen the way those gulls were winging it around* They
went crazy .

You must have lots of boy friends, Phyllis

one

Incredible!

Only one I’m interested in

right now

What is he like?

Who?

Your lover

Oh him. He’s married. I

haven’t got a chance with him

You hussy! And what do you do together?

Just talk.

Phyllis <£f Paterson

Are you happy?
Happy IVe come?

Happy? No, I’m not happy

Never?
Well .

The

• • . « * •

The Poet

Oh Paterson! Oh married man!
He is the city of cheap hotels and private
entrances , of taxis at the door, the car
standing in the rain hour after hour by
the roadhouse entrance

Good-bye, dear, I had a wonderful time.
Wait! there’s something . but I’ve forgotten
what it was . something I wanted
to tell you. Completely gone! Completely,
Well, good-bye

212

from Paterson. I do have a whitmanic mania & nostalgia for cities
and detail & panorama and isolation in jungle and pole, like the
images you pick up. When I’ve seen enough I’ll be back to splash in
the Passaic again only with a body so naked and happy City Hall
will have to call out the Riot Squad. When I come back 1*11 make
big political speeches in the mayoralty campaigns like I did when
I was 1 6 only this time I’ll have W. C. Fields on my left and
Jehovah on my right. Why not? Paterson is only a big sad poppa
who needs compassion. • In any case Beauty is where I hang
my hat. And reality. And America.

There is no struggle to speak to the city, out of the stones etc.
Truth is not hard to find . . . I’m not being clear, so Til
shut up . . I mean to say Paterson is not a task like
Milton going down to hell, it’s a flower to the mind too etc etc.

 

 

And Yet One Arrives Somehow

 

rolla-henri-gervex
Rolla by Henri Gervex

Arrival

by William Carlos Williams

And yet one arrives somehow,
finds himself loosening the hooks of
her dress
in a strange bedroom—
feels the autumn
dropping its silk and linen leaves
about her ankles.
The tawdry veined body emerges
twisted upon itself
like a winter wind . . . !


There is a tradition in poetry which I admire; that being established poets mentoring the next generation of poets who are pushing the current boundaries of poetry.  Many of my favorite poets have maintained a wide circle of friendships, and provided encouragement and criticism to new writers,  helping them to hone their craft.

William Carlos Williams is an example and maintained correspondence and friendships with many poets, including Marianne Moore, Ezra Pound, Charles Abbott, James Laughlin, Louis Zukofsky, and Denise Levertov to name a few. Levertov, a disciple of Williams’ Imagist style, wrote him an admiring letter when she was young, and included several of her poems. Williams wrote back, providing validation and the most generous act of all, suggested edits, to help refine her writing technique.

Levertov penned an interesting explanation of why modern poetry evolved in the 20th century beyond the confines of more formal metrical structure like sonnets.  In it she wrote:

“.….I do not mean to imply that I consider modern, nonmetrical poetry “better” or “superior” to the great poetry of the past, which I love and honor. That would obviously be absurd. But I do feel that there are few poets today whose sensibility naturally expresses itself in the traditional forms…The closed, contained quality of such forms has less relation to the relativistic sense of life which unavoidably prevails in the late twentieth century than modes that are more exploratory, more open-ended. A sonnet may end with a question; but its essential,underlying structure arrives at conclusion. “Open forms” do not necessarily terminate inconclusively, but their degree of conclusion is–structurally, and thereby expressively–less pronounced, and partakes of the open quality of the whole…The forms more apt to express the sensibility of our age are the exploratory, open ones.”

Excerpt from The Function of The Line, 1979.  Yale University Press.

It is an interesting idea, that the poets of the 20th and now 21 century have left structure and rhyme behind because there are no answers to the madness that befalls this world on a daily basis.  But there’s always been madness.  And in my opinion, if poetry lacks beauty, in some form, it lacks a timeless quality that is the cornerstone of verse that survives its epoch.  As readers we toy with darkness and enjoy rolling in the mud from time to time, but’s its the light of poetry that is the bread of life for our souls. Its why, when I ask someone, do you have a favorite poem, the answer if yes, is more often than not, a metrical rhyming poem.  A poem where there is a reassurance of an answer. Poems where there is something concrete in meaning or imagery for the reader to find, not words that were by design to be elusive, there is something for the reader to hold on to.

Wallace Stevens’ legacy is primarily his originality of free verse, but he wrote beautifully in traditional forms as well, even if he found “it sounded like the rise, of distant echo from dead melody, soft as a song heard far in Paradise.”


Sonnet

by Wallace Stevens

Lo, even as I passed beside the booth
Of roses, and beheld them brightly twine
To damask heights, taking them as a sign
Of my own self still unconcerned with truth;
Even as I held up in hands uncouth
And drained with joy the golden-bodied wine,
Deeming it half-unworthy, half divine,
From out the sweet-rimmed goblet of my youth.

Even in that pure hour I heard the tone
Of grievous music stir in memory,
Telling me of the time already flown
From my first youth. It sounded like the rise
Of distant echo from dead melody,
Soft as a song heard far in Paradise.

Home To Your Heart

 

Wallace-Stevens-portrait
Wallace Stevens (1879 – 1955)

 

“One thing I am convinced more and more is true and that is this: the only way to be truly happy is to make others happy. When you realize that and take advantage of the fact, everything is made perfect.”

William Carlos Williams in letter to his Mother, published in Selected Letters 1957.

 

Slow Movement

by William Carlos Williams

All those treasures that lie in the little bolted box whose tiny space is
Mightier than the room of the stars, being secret and filled with dreams:
All those treasures—I hold them in my hand—are straining continually
Against the sides and the lid and the two ends of the little box in which I guard them;
Crying that there is no sun come among them this great while and that they weary of shining;
Calling me to fold back the lid of the little box and to give them sleep finally.

But the night I am hiding from them, dear friend, is far more desperate than their night!
And so I take pity on them and pretend to have lost the key to the little house of my treasures;
For they would die of weariness were I to open it, and not be merely faint and sleepy
As they are now.


I am a little envious of artists whose skill and daring make it possible for them to earn a living as an artist.  I have never had such pluck.  I am in good company when it comes to poets in that regard.  Many of the poets I admire and who helped shape the poetic language of the 20th Century did not make their living as a poet.  William Carlos Williams was a doctor, a general practitioner in Patterson, NY and Wallace Stevens was an executive for a insurance company in New York City.  Either could be the patron saint of the responsible adult toiling daily in a job they may or may not love, but which gives structure and financial stability to their life so that in their free time they can pursue their art.

Both Wallace Stevens and William Carlos Williams pushed the boundaries of free verse and helped redefine American poetry. William’s wrote in Modern American Poetry (1950); “The job of the poet is to use language effectively, his own language, the only language which is to him authentic.”  Neither WCW or Stevens is known for classical poetry, quite the opposite, they are known for their free verse, and yet, like most poets, the sonnet form is like a siren calling them to the shore, and they are inspired to take their turn in wrestling with tradition.


Explain My Spirit

by Wallace Stevens

Explain my spirit—adding word to word,
As if the exposition gave delight.
Reveal me, lover, to myself more bright.
“You are a twilight, and a twilight bird.”
Again! For all the untroubled senses stirred,
Conceived anew, like callow wings in flight,
Bearing desire toward an upper light.
“You are a twilight, and a twilight bird.”

Burn in my shadows, Hesperus, my own,
And look upon me with a triumphant fire.
Behold, how glorious the dark has grown!
My wings shall beat all night against your breast,
Heavy with music—feel them there aspire
Home to your heart, as to a hidden nest.