I Engraft You New

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Ancient statue of Buddha being engulfed by a seven hundred year old tree in Thailand.

Sonnet 15

William Shakespeare

When I consider everything that grows
Holds in perfection but a little moment,
That this huge stage presenteth nought but shows
Whereon the stars in secret influence comment;
When I perceive that men as plants increase,
Cheered and check’d even by the selfsame sky,
Vaunt in their youthful sap, at height decrease,
And wear their brave state out of memory;
Then the conceit of this inconstant stay
Sets you most rich in youth before my sight,
Where wasteful Time debateth with Decay
To change your day of youth to sullied night;
And all in war with Time for love of you,
As he takes from you, I engraft you new.

 


 

How do you view the plant kindgdom?  As benevolent caregivers of our planet by providing oxygen and food for nearly every other organism?  As a source of beauty and wonder?  As the original source of energy of all fossil fuels?  Or as complex, sophisticated warriors who ruthlessly stake out and defend their claim to a patch of soil, water, nutrients and sunshine?

If the last one surprises you, then you might not be familiar with the concepts of competition and allelopathy among plants.  A corn plant that germinates and emerges only four to five days later than its neighboring plants will never catch-up.  It is relegated to a second class existence, destined to become barren or at best produce a marginal withered ear, essentially a weed, compared to those plants that emerged uniformly only a couple of days sooner. This fight for resources that plays out in a corn field is not chemical in nature, its simply the advantage of being taller and first to grow, the larger plants dominate because they get more sunshine, which translates into more energy to feed a larger root system, which means the ability to intercept more nutrients and water in the soil.  The smaller plants under the dense foliage are at a disadvantage they simply can’t overcome.

Some plants have additional weapons at their disposal for helping them and their offspring survive and thrive.   The concept of allelopathy takes competitive advantage to another level. Allelopathy is when a plant excretes a chemical substance from its roots or a chemical is released from decaying leaves or fruit, that inhibits the germination, growth or fitness of other plants growing in its vicinity, thereby conferring an advantage to that plant or its next generation to dominate that space.  Allelopathy is the explanation for why little grows under a mature walnut tree.  It’s not just the shade from the canopy, its the allelopathic qualities of the natural chemicals released from the trees roots, leaves and rotting green fruits that prevents other things from growing within its reach.

The photograph above is a winner in this year’s historical photography contest in England and was taken by Matthew Browne.  You can read the full article about it in the link below.  It is a marvelous artistic image of a tree’s ability to envelop objects in its way. It is interesting to consider that the tree was already 300 years old when Shakespeare wrote his sonnets. Looking at the image, given the serene gaze of the Buddha peeking out, you could debate whether Buddha is being born, emerging afresh or is being swallowed up and being destroyed.  It all depends on your perspective.  Are we coming are we going? I think the tree is embracing, telling us, like Shakespeare, “I engraft you new.”

http://www.bbc.com/culture/story/20171124-the-700-year-old-sculpture-swallowed-by-tree-roots


Under The Greenwood Tree

(A Song from As You Like It)

by William Shakespeare

Under the greenwood tree
Who loves to lie with me,
And turn his merry note
Unto the sweet bird’s throat,
Come hither, come hither, come hither:
            Here shall he see
            No enemy
But winter and rough weather.
Who doth ambition shun
And loves to live i’ the sun,
Seeking the food he eats,
And pleased with what he gets,
Come hither, come hither, come hither:
            Here shall he see
            No enemy
But winter and rough weather.

The Breath That From My Mistress Reeks

“Can there really be a form of verse where all that counts is the number of syllables in a line? No patterning of stress at all? What is the point?

Well, that is a fair and intelligent question and I congratulate myself for asking it.”

Stephen Fry, The Ode Less Travelled: Unlocking the Poet Within.

Sonnet 130

by William Shakespeare

My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun;
Coral is far more red than her lips’ red;
If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun;
If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head.
I have seen roses damasked, red and white,
But no such roses see I in her cheeks;
And in some perfumes is there more delight
Than in the breath that from my mistress reeks.
I love to hear her speak, yet well I know
That music hath a far more pleasing sound;
I grant I never saw a goddess go;
My mistress when she walks treads on the ground.
And yet, by heaven, I think my love as rare
As any she belied with false compare.

I think there is such a thing as Yin and Yang in poetry.  I don’t mean poetry written to articulate Chinese philosophy, like the Dao, but concepts around the construction of poetry that are diametrically opposed and almost become mirror opposites of each other during the creative process.

To many readers, rhyming poetry sounds old-fashioned.  To most living breathing poets, traditional forms of rhyming poetry is confining, too out of step with the current taste in poetry presented as cutting edge in MFA programs and journals. I like free verse, well at least some free verse.  I think free verse is amazing when in the hands of a talented writer.  I am a huge fan of William Carlos Williams, William Stafford, Robert Bly, Wallace Stevens, Ellen Bass, just to name a few, but I also think that a fellow Fry, (who is not a relation), summed it up pretty well when Stephen’s Fry declared that a fat lot of it is complete “arse-dribble.”  Poetry is in the ear of the beholder.   What I find compelling, other’s may find boring.  But I find that there is a sloppy, narcissistic quality to a wheel barrow full of free verse that I come across which turns me off in far less than 14 lines.  I particularly dislike the multi-page free verse poem that has not one meaningful thing to say to me, was written like an assignment from the poet’s shrink or divorce lawyer and is constructed like the concept of putting together pleasing sounds to read aloud was an after thought or actually repugnant to the writer. I give the The New Yorker magazine tons of credit for including poetry.  Each week I hopefully seek out the poems only to find that 70 percent of the time I read them and say with my inside voice; “barf.”  Am I that out of step with the rest of the world or is there something lacking?

How did we come to this point in literature, when for thousands of years, writers and listeners of poetry were grooving on rhymes and in the last 100 years, free verse has completely co-opted poetry as the dominant force? What caused this tectonic shift when rhyming poetry and poetic oral histories had relied on rhyme and meter to assist with memorization since preliterate society?

I don’t know, but my guess is that in the past 100 years, poets eager to be novel and find a unique voice have thrown the baby out with the bath water and the reading public’s response was a collective yawn.  There are no rock star poets anymore. The reading public by and large stopped reading poetry about the same time that free verse became dominant. (A cause and effect I do not think is relevant, but why not throw around trashy accusations anyways.) Some infamous wit that I recently came across said; “there is no greater publishing disaster than the first printing of a new author’s book of poetry.”

I have set up this blog with the intention for it to be part of an art project next summer where I will ask complete strangers two questions: “Do you have a favorite poem?  And Why?”.  I intend to create a log of their responses and to keep a counter of how many of their favorite poems are rhyming versus how many are free verse.   It will be interesting to see the results but I will wager that rhyming poems are going to win hands down.  Why?   Because we remember rhyming poetry, even if it is just a couple of lines, much easier than we remember free verse.  The human brain is wired to be attracted to rhymes, it globs on to them, and keeps them deep in the recesses of our memories. I am amazed to hear my 86 year old father recite rhyming poetry he learned in a one room school house in Iowa in the fifth grade.

There are many brilliant minds that forged the path of free verse, William Carlos Williams and Wallace Stephens both wrote eloquently on the nature of poetry, art and their vision of artistic expression.   I highly recommend Wallace Stephen’s essays on the subject, Necessary Angels.  Neither ventured into writing free verse recklessly.  It was  a life time pursuit based on a poetic ideal that they steadfastly executed with an artistic zeal. Given the back drop of WWI and WWII it is not surprising that poets in the 20th Century looked to find a new voice.

Charles Olson and Robert Creeley, members of the Black Mountain poets, together built on the foundations of free verse that had come in the generation before them and developed the concept of “projective verse,”  a poetry that shuns traditional forms in favor of a freely constructed verse that is shaped by the process of composing it. Olson called this process “composition by field,” and his essay  “Projective Verse,” was influential to poets in the 1950’s and beyond. Olson credited Creeley with articulating one of the basic principles of this new poetry: the idea that “form is never more than an extension of content.”  This declaration is the Yang to a sonnet’s Yin, where with a sonnet content never extends beyond the form.

I happen to not like Charles Olson’s poetry. I think it is a big over-indulgent helping of very intelligent scribbling.  Sorry Charles, I suspect that there is more than one doctoral thesis written somewhere that would beg to differ, but your writing does not speak to me, I can’t bear to drag myself to the finish line of a bit of it. However, I do like Robert Creeley. What does that say about my fickleness? It says, I like what I like and here’s one of Creeley’s I like.

The Rain

by Robert Creeley

All night the sound had
come back again,
and again falls
this quiet, persistent rain.

What am I to myself
that must be remembered,
insisted upon so often? Is it

that never the ease,
even the hardness,
of rain falling
will have for me

something other than this,
something not so insistent–
am I to be locked in this
final uneasiness.

Love, if you love me,
lie next to me.
Be, for me, like rain,
the getting out

of the tiredness, the fatuousness, the semi-
lust of intentional indifference.
Be wet
with a decent happiness.

Weep For The Legendary Dragon

 

The American poet Sylvia Plath (1932-1963) in 1961. New York Public LIbrary Picture Collection.
Sylvia Plath (1932 – 1963)

“The great art of life is sensation – to feel that we exist, even though in pain.”

Lord Byron (1788 – 1824)

CXXXIV

By Shakespeare (1564 – 1616)

So now I have confessed that he is thine,
And I my self am mortgaged to thy will,
Myself I’ll forfeit, so that other mine
Thou wilt restore to be my comfort still:
But thou wilt not, nor he will not be free,
For thou art covetous, and he is kind;
He learned but surety-like to write for me,
Under that bond that him as fast doth bind.
The statute of thy beauty thou wilt take,
Thou usurer, that put’st forth all to use,
And sue a friend came debtor for my sake;
So him I lose through my unkind abuse.
Him have I lost; thou hast both him and me:
He pays the whole, and yet am I not free.

 

I am conflicted by the idea that art can only come from a well-spring of great experience, be it love or tragedy in spades.  I think sometimes art can come equally from the mundacity of life as well.  However, I recognize that artists have their own favorites when it comes to their creations. I feel more strongly about some of my poems than others, and specific poems stand out in my mind because they become in my memory like a snapshot of a key event.  It would be an interesting thing to discuss with artists, what shaped the creation of your favorite piece of art and to see whether there is a common thread of experience?

There is no denying that a certain amount of ego and impulsiveness is required to be an artist.  The creative process, if it is to be shared with others, requires at some point that an artist must get naked in public metaphorically speaking.  The quesiton each artist must answer is how much skin to bare and when does the process of creating art jump the barrier from tasteful nude to pornography because of the severity of what is depicted?

It is an interesting question, the idea that art can be pornographic in a graphic sense of how much our interior is revealed.  The list of artists who were (are) tortured souls is nearly as long as the list of artists, but I am not convinced that unhappiness, depression, addiction and suicide are a requirement for creativity or the creation of great art.  I think creativity can come equally from love, joy, sanity and modesty.   But for some,  the lighter side of the human experience is not nearly as productive personally.  As a rule I know  the art I am most attracted imparts an emotion or an idea regardless of whether it is positive or negative.

I think there is a certain lurid fascination with the artist who becomes a Phoenix, bursting into flame mid-flight.  Those artists who share their doomed voyage either in spite of their art or who choose to use their art as a legacy of their descent.  My preference however, is for artists, who singe their wings but do not implode or explode and manage to land safely enough to preserver.

Circling back one last time, for now, to Wilco, I found this short interview with Jeff Tweedy talking about the idea of a tortured artist and his own struggles.  In the end, I think it all depends, like Shakespeare says above, on whether you can separate art from the artist and the idea; “Him have I lost, thou hast both him and me.”

 

Slyvia Plath usually makes the short list in any discussion of tortured artists.  I have found it interesting how my respect for Sylvia Plath’s writing has grown as I have spent more time writing poetry.  But I also have a healthy aversion to her work, reading her in small doses and infrequently.

I don’t agree with Sylvia’s last couplet in her sonnet below.  I am often attracted to poems where my level of disagreement is strong, when the poem sets off an internal debate.  I think of time as a continuous piece of paper before us and a millions words trailing behind.

How do you intrepet Sylvia Plath’s sonnet below?

Sonnet: To Time

By Sylvia Plath

Today we move in jade and cease with garnet
Amid the ticking jeweled clocks that mark
Our years. Death comes in a casual steel car, yet
We vaunt our days in neon and scorn the dark.

But outside the diabolic steel of this
Most plastic-windowed city, I can hear
The lone wind raving in the gutter, his
Voice crying exclusion in my ear.

So cry for the pagan girl left picking olives
Beside a sunblue sea, and mourn the flagon
Raised to toast a thousand kings, for all gives
Sorrow; weep for the legendary dragon.

Time is a great machine of iron bars
That drains eternally the milk of stars.

Gallant Ghosts, Undaunted

IMG_1557I have ghosts on my mind this week,  with Halloween, The Day of the Dead and All Saints Day all swirling beneath the surface.  A good yarn, which is all any poem should aspire, at least the ones that keep my attention, require some truth,  a truth worth tending.   The question is always how much truth comes from a writer’s imagination and how much from their experience?  Truth in literature may be fabricated entirely.   An empathetic phrase by which we catch a collective breath of understanding.

I write primarily in first person.   I realize that this may create confusion for anyone who knows me personally and chooses to view the narrative as literal.   What is real and what is not real?  Isn’t that the cloak behind which all writers hide and invent a reality worthy of putting to paper.

We don’t have Shakespeare’s blog or twitter feed to gain further insights into his poetry.  He left the interpretation of his writing to the reader.   But make no mistake,  Love plays a role in all this business. A most generous Love, a Love that both clasps hearts in irons and springs the lock of freedom.

Shakespeare’s Sonnet 29, in my view, is a mirror in which to view myself.   Yes, it is hubris to put one of my sonnets alongside Shakespeare’s and pretend they belong in the same space.  But then isn’t it hubris that drives any of us to write in the first place?   My sonnet, Gallant Ghosts, Undaunted, was written during the tail spin of a relationship. It is a fictional Polaroid of a future yet to be experienced, but hoped for with an optimism of forgiveness.  I was delusional.  Hell hath no fury…..

It is a connection to a beginning and an homage to the role that poetry played throughout our relationship.  I am fully aware that the last few words are identical to a sonnet from the 1700s.   I will share the story behind that fact in the next blog.

Sonnet 29

By William Shakespeare

When, in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes,
I all alone beweep my outcast state,
And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries,
And look upon myself and curse my fate,
Wishing me like to one more rich in hope,
Featured like him, like him with friends possessed,
Desiring this man’s art and that man’s scope,
With what I most enjoy contented least;
Yet in these thoughts myself almost despising,
Haply I think on thee, and then my state,
(Like to the lark at break of day arising
From sullen earth) sings hymns at heaven’s gate;
       For thy sweet love remembered such wealth brings
       That then I scorn to change my state with kings.

 

 

Gallant Ghosts, Undaunted

by T. A. Fry

I think of you, writing late in the nightfall
Revering your muse, as no other may place
Claims to a heart, forever a rightful
Palace of dreams,  once my saving grace.
What’s mine is yours,  our auspices blessed
By memories of loving which illumine my soul.
On Darkest Night(s) as you slowly undress,
Recall my touch, though its loss be a toll.

Come gallant ghosts, lay down by my side
Undaunted: whisper poems long written for me.
Their haunting passion shall always reside
Deep in bruised hearts, a grand larceny.
Timeless this beauty, in mind’s eye I hold,  
The feel of your lips and outlive the old.

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