The Law Rushes Like Mud

200
This is the two hundredth blog post on Fourteenlines.blog

200

The Dream Songs
By John Berryman

I am interested & amazed: on the building across the way
from where I vaguely live there are no bars!
Best-looking place in town.
Only them lawyers big with great cigars
and lesser with briefcases, instead of minds,
move calmly in and out

and now or then an official limousine
with a live Supreme Court justice & chauffeur
mounts the ramp toward me.
We live behind, you see.  It’s Christmas, and brrr
in Washington.  My wife’s candle is out
for John F. Kennedy

And the law rushes like mud but the park is white
with a heavy fall for ofays and for dark,
let’s exchange blue-black kisses
for the fate of the Man who was not born today,
clashing our tinsel, by the terrible tree
whereon he really hung, for you & me.


Sometimes mud rushes pretty darn fast, recent pictures of flash flooding in the burn scars in California show mud-rivers hurtling down mountains. Mostly mud just hangs around and slowly makes it way down watersheds as sediment to eventually settle out in slow moving places. Either way, the landscape can be changed forever. Which trajectory of mud will the Mueller investigation take in the next couple of months?

It is unsettling to me that it is suddenly the 200th post. It feels like it was just the 100th post. I am sure I’ll be saying the same about the 300th. Time speeds up as you get older. The days, weeks and months move by at an ever quickening speed.  Our human agency of mud rushing us along until it sweeps us away at the end or covers us up.

I have been reading Berryman’s The Dream Songs on planes the past month.  Berryman’s quixotic mind is capable of almost anything one page to the next. I go back and forth between revulsion and awe with Berryman, but no matter what, his poetry leaves a bitter after taste, the sheer self destructiveness of  his real life oozing out onto the page.  I am not one who glorifies the writer as romantic drunk.  Which is the chicken and which is the egg for many writers: poets becoming alcoholics or alcohol becoming poetry? It is shocking how few teetotalers exist among the pantheon of great poets. What does that say about the human mind as addict and as artist?

Regardless of whether you like the man Berryman, it is hard not to be pulled under the sway of Berryman the poet, even when he is at his most self-effacing, an obvious rakish cad. It helps to remember when reading The Dream Songs that he didn’t share them publicly until decades after the real life betrayal of his by then ex-wife by seducing another man’s wife. At least he waited for the healing balm of time to scab over his amputations before showing the stumps of his scars to the world.

Berryman was original, he created his own sonnet form, to fit his own needs and poetic vision. Even when I don’t like the man and muse behind The Dream Songs, I find myself enamored by the construction of them, his use of rhyme, his unique re-imagining of the form. classical poetry is fresh under his masterful control.

For a far more academic and insightful analysis of Berryman’s sonnets, read April Bernard’s essay in Poetry Magazine.

https://www.poetryfoundation.org/harriet/2014/06/berrymans-sonnets

The truth of it is that Berryman was a drunk, a stinking drunk and drunks eventually break things, even if what they break is primarily themselves, the rush of mud of into the crevices. But its interesting that numerous students remember him only with fondness. Multiple students can be found in the bowels of Google with articles, or a little video or an audio version of what sound like love letters of appreciation to what Berryman brought to them as a Professor, as a lasting influence in their life. By all accounts he was a remarkable teacher.

Of course Levine went on to be a very successful poet. But if I am honest, he is the kind of poet that I struggle reading. He writes the kind of free verse that I tend to read about 15 lines and drift away, never to return.

Levine was our Poet Laureate for a bit and when asked by a writer from the New York Times what he thought of the initiative by The Poetry Foundation to utilize a $200 million endowment to increase the popularity of poetry by encouraging poets to write more upbeat poetry, he responded by belittling the Poetry Foundation, proudly remaining an angry, angst-ridden poet right up until the end. I don’t think Levine got it, that he was exactly the kind of poet that makes poetry less popular.

I have picked out the one sonnet I can find of Levine’s.  It is not representative of Levine’s body of work, which is probably why it is the one poem of Levine’s I actually like.  You tell me if this poem is about Berryman?

Happy 200 Day!


The Drunkard

by Phillip Levine

He fears the tiger standing in his way.
The tiger takes its time, it smiles and growls.
Like moons, the two blank eyes tug at his bowels.
“God help me now,” is all that he can say.

“God help me now, how close I’ve come to God.
To love and to be loved, I’ve drunk for love.
Send me the faith of Paul, or send a dove.”
The tiger hears and stiffens like a rod.

At last the tiger leaps, and when it hits
A putrid surf breaks in the drunkard’s soul.
The tiger, done, returns to its patrol.
The world takes up its trades; the man his wits,
And, bottom up, he mumbles from the deep,
“Life was a dream, Oh, may this death be sleep.”

Bulldozers, Telling Us Where To Stand

natasha-trethewey
Natasha Trethewey

Pastoral

by Natasha Trethewey (1966- )

In the dream, I am with the Fugitive
Poets. We’re gathered for a photograph.
Behind us, the skyline of Atlanta
hidden by the photographer’s backdrop —
a lush pasture, green, full of soft-eyed cows
lowing, a chant that sounds like no, no. Yes,
I say to the glass of bourbon I’m offered.
We’re lining up now — Robert Penn Warren,
his voice just audible above the drone
of bulldozers, telling us where to stand.
Say “race,” 
the photographer croons. I’m in
blackface again when the flash freezes us.
My father’s white, 
I tell them, and rural.
You don’t hate the South? 
they ask. You don’t hate it?



 

Miscegenation

by Natasha Trethewey

In 1965 my parents broke two laws of Mississippi;
they went to Ohio to marry, returned to Mississippi.

They crossed the river into Cincinnati, a city whose name
begins with a sound like sin, the sound of wrong-mis in Mississippi.

A year later they moved to Canada, followed a route the same
as slaves, the train slicing the white glaze of winter, leaving Mississippi.

Faulkener’s Joe Christmas was born in winter, like Jesus, given his name
for the day he was left at the orphanage, his race unknown in Mississippi.

My father was reading War and Peace when he gave me my name.
was born near Easter, 1966, in Mississippi.

When I turned 33 my father said, It’s your Jesus year – you’re the same
age he was when he died.  It was spring, the hills greann in Mississippi

I know more than Joe Christmas did.  Natasha is a Russian name –
though I’m not; it means Christmas child, even in Mississippi.

 


 

Natasha Trethewey, “Miscegenation” from Native Guard. Copyright © 2007 by Natasha Trethewey.  Source: Native Guard (Mariner Books, 2007)

“Pastoral” from “Native Guard: Poems” by Natasha Trethewey. Copyright © 2006 by Natasha Trethewey. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.

The Caprice of Prosody

francesco-petrarch-4

Protest
by Joseph Auslander (1897 – 1965)

I will not make a sonnet from
Each little private martyrdom:
Nor out of love left dead with time
Construe a stanza or a rime.

We do not suffer to afford
The searched for and the subtle word:
There is too much that may not be
At the caprice of prosody.

From Cyclops’ Eye. Harper & Brothers, 1926

Sonnet 61

by Francesco Petrarch (1304 – 1374)
Translated by Joseph Auslander

Blest be the day, and blest be the month and year,
Season and hour and very moment blest,
The lovely land and place where first possessed
By two pure eyes I found me prisoner;
And blest the first sweet pain, the first most dear,
Which burnt my heart when Love came in as guest;
And blest the bow, the shafts which shook my breast,
And even the wounds which Love delivered there.
Blest be the words and voices which filled grove
And glen with echoes of my lady’s name;
The sighs, the tears, the fierce despair of love;
And blest the sonnet-sources of my fame;
And blest that thought of thoughts which is her own,
Of her, her only, of herself alone!


Pop Quiz.

  1. Can you name the current Poet Laureate of the United States?
  2. Does your state or province have a poet laureate? If yes, who is it?

My Answers:

  1. Tracy K. Smith (September 2017)
  2. Yes – Minnesota’s poet laureate is Joyce Sutphen.

The concept of a poet laureate as a function of recognition and civic artistic contribution to society goes all the way back to the 14th Century.  Petrarch was crowned Rome’s first poet laureate in 1341 and is the god-father of sonnets.   So it is only slightly ironic, or a planned coincidence, that the United States first poet laureate,  was Joseph Auslander.  One of Auslander’s many accomplishments as a writer was an English translation of Petrarch’s sonnets.

In upcoming blog posts I’ll share poems from current and former poet laureates. Here’s a poem from the current Poet Laureate.

Sci-Fi

by Tracy K. Smith

There will be no edges, but curves.
Clean lines pointing only forward.

History, with its hard spine and dog-eared
Corners, will be replaced with nuance,

Just like the dinosaurs gave way
To mounds and mounds of ice.

Women will still be women, but
The distinction will be empty. Sex,

Having outlived every threat, will gratify
Only the mind, which is where it will exist.

For kicks, we’ll dance for ourselves
Before mirrors studded with golden bulbs.

The oldest among us will recognize that glow—
But the word sun will have been re-assigned.

To the Standard Uranium-Neutralizing device
Found in households and nursing homes.

And yes, we’ll live to be much older, thanks
To popular consensus. Weightless, unhinged,

Eons from even our own moon, we’ll drift
In the haze of space, which will be, once

And for all, scrutable and safe.


Tracy K. Smith, “Sci-Fi” from Life on Mars. Copyright © 2011 by Tracy K. Smith.