The Sole Performance Of A Life

Pulitzer-poetry-prize-win-001
W. S. Merwin

Sonnet

by W. S. Merwin (1927 – 2019)

Where it begins will remain a question
for the time being at least which is to
say for this lifetime and there is no
other life that can be this one again
and where it goes after that only one
at a time is ever about to know
though we have it by heart as one and though
we remind each other on occasion

How often may the clarinet rehearse
alone the one solo before the one
time that is heard after all the others
telling the one thing that they all tell of
it is the sole performance of a life
come back I say to it over the waters


William Stanley Merwin died four days ago on March 15.   Merwin was the recipient of the Pulitzer Prize twice, separated by 38 years, the first in 1971 and the second in 2009, putting him in rarefied air among poets with everyone looking up at Robert Frost who received four, a bit hoggish I think, having the inability to write crap for an extended period in his career so someone else could bring home some bling.

Merwin and MacLeish helped balance the scales in the poetry world by showing it is possible to be a poet and live to a ripe old age and not smoke and drink yourself to death prematurely with an anxiety ridden existance as the source of your muse or worse yet, stick your head in an oven like a few other Pulitzer prize winners. Fortunately, the Pulitzer committee does not take into account the theatrical nature of the poet’s self-destruction as a criteria for receiving the award. They only look at the body of work and in both MacLeish’s and Merwin’s cases the body of work is long and substantial. Each lived big lives and expanded the world of poetry through their contributions. MacLeish also a recipient of the Pulitzer in 1933.

The poem below snuck up on me.  Preparing for this blog post, I read a number of MacLeish’s better known poems and kept coming back to this poem. I can’t explain why, other than it feels like a poem that is a private conversation between the poet and the reader in the quiet of the moment, a whisper in your ear, a confidence between a favorite uncle and his much younger protege, saying “pay attention, your life is happening, right now.”  So pay attention and enjoy, both your life and this poem.


The Rock In The Sea

By Archibald MacLeish (1892 – 1982)

Think of our blindness where the water burned!
Are we so certain that those wings, returned
And turning, we had half discerned
Before our dazzled eyes had surely seen
The bird aloft there, did not mean?—
Our hearts so seized upon the sign!

Think how we sailed up-wind, the brine
Tasting of daphne, the enormous wave
Thundering in the water cave—
Thunder in stone. And how we beached the skiff
And climbed the coral of that iron cliff
And found what only in our hearts we’d heard—
The silver screaming of that one, white bird:
The fabulous wings, the crimson beak
That opened, red as blood, to shriek
And clamor in that world of stone,
No voice to answer but its own.

What certainty, hidden in our hearts before,
Found in the bird its metaphor?

 

Not To Sink Under

 

Frostpicture
Robert Frost

The Investment

by Robert Frost

Over back where they speak of life as staying
(‘You couldn’t call it living, for it ain’t’),
There was an old, old house renewed with paint,
And in it a piano loudly playing.

Out in the plowed ground in the cold a digger,
Among unearthed potatoes standing still,
Was counting winter dinners, one a hill,
With half an ear to the piano’s vigor.

All that piano and new paint back there,
Was it some money suddenly come into?
Or some extravagance young love had been to?
Or old love on an impulse not to care–

Not to sink under being man and wife,
But get some color and music out of life?


It would not be grandiose of me to say that poetry has transformed my life. Poetry has been a journey, a trial, an unveiling and an unraveling the past 5 years. That it is 5 years since my mind suddenly took a left turn and found poetry soothing an ache that lost love had left behind, gives me pause on how fast the years recede and how important it is to make a few investments along the way, to get some color and music out of life.

I find myself suddenly in love again, which is not something that has happened very often in my lifetime, only three times prior. To have been in love with four women, each distinctly unique, is a gift that I do not take lightly, each having brought something completely different in terms of insights their love of me opened. I hope they would say the same of my love, at least the best of my love.

I know that a defense of anyone accused of misdeeds raises the specter that you are wrong, for we never really know what another human being is capable in the privacy of their life.  Yet, if writing is a window into our souls, and a writer who lives to write is constantly exposing some versions of their truths, then can we not deduce something of a person’s character by how they speak, by what they leave behind in words? The answer, is both yes and no. I have spent the past 5 years writing my beliefs as centering prayers, sonnets, and have completed a draft of a chap book titled The Canticle of Divine Doubt. I am in the process of sharing it, socializing it among friends and family, welcoming their feedback, positive or negative. But what will they take from those words, my poems? What can they deduce of my character from them? I wrote them not because I believe I have attained the attributes that the work describes, but because I hope by writing them and then reading them over and over, they will change me, and I will become more like the thoughts conveyed. Writing, for me, is not about arrival, it is about setting a course for my journey and correcting course as needed along the way.

If I were to judge Garrison Keillor solely based on his words,  the volumes of his writing shared on public radio as The Writer’s Almanac, what could I deduce? That he is a person emboldened by sharp intellect, that he has a tremendous taste in poetry and that he is able to share his love of writing and literature with an audience through his voice in ways that far exceed the gifts of but a very few.  That he is also human and potentially has committed acts that would neither honor the best of himself or those he might have assailed is the conundrum that makes the mystery of what compromises each life such a fascinating contradiction.  In offering a defense solely based on his public contributions, I do not deny the very real suffering that occurred by his accuser, for the courage to come forward and make an allegation is a weighty thing. And regardless of what happened between them, I hope that she has the support she needs to move on in her life and find healing, forgiveness and a return to what is good and best for her. Something happened that drove her to come forward and in no way, does my seeing some measure of redemption in the man she accused negate the harm he may have caused her and others along the way.  We are not one things as human.  No one is purely good or purely bad.  If we are lucky we find someone who is willing to love us fully, in spite of the entirety of our contradictions.

If you are not familiar with the Writer’s Almanac then there is a storehouse of podcasts just waiting for you. Here is a selection from March 16, 2017 along with a link so that you can explore on your own.  Enjoy them for what they are and in Keillor’s signature sign-off;

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®

https://www.writersalmanac.org/index.html%3Fp=9654.html


For Frances

by Ogden Nash

Geniuses of countless nations
Have told their love for generations
Till all their memorable phrases
Are common as goldenrod or daisies.
Their girls have glimmered like the moon,
Or shimmered like a summer noon,
Stood like lily, fled like fawn,
Now like sunset, now like dawn,
Here the princess in the tower,
There the sweet forbidden flower.
Darling, when I think of you
Every aged phrase is new,
And there are moments when it seems
I’ve married one of Shakespeare’s dreams.

 

 

Anger Of Women

jmp Keillor
Garrison Keillor

“It’s a shallow life that doesn’t give a person a few scars.”

Garrison Keillor

The Anger of Women

by Garrison Keillor

The anger of women pervades the rooms
Like a cold snap, and you wait for the thaw
To open the window and air out the anger fumes,
And then a right hook KA-POW to the jaw!
And she says three jagged things about you
And then it’s over. She bursts into tears,
The storm spent, the sky turns sky-blue.
But a man’s heart can hurt for many years.
I have found the anger of women unbearable.
And when my goddesses have cursed the day
They met me and said those terrible
Things, I folded my tent and stole away.
I yielded to their righteous dominion
And went off in search of another opinion.


There are very few men whose reputations have been upended by the #metoo movement that I have felt compassion. For the vast majority the weight of the accusations has been overwhelming. Whatever disruption in their lives came about by shining a light on their criminal behavior or bad behavior is only a start to the justice the victims deserve.  I want to make it clear that I think the #metoo movement is an important force for positive change which I fully support.

However, I have read the accusations against Garrison Keillor and scratched my head a little by the response from Minnesota Public Radio. If there is nothing more behind Keillor’s behavior than what was reported in the news, then the actions taken by Minnesota Public Radio feel to me like he is the aggrieved not his accuser. It’s not that my fondness for Keillor’s writing and Prairie Home Companion is clouding my judgement.  It’s when does a lifetime worth of good work get erased without a day in court?  When do we allow a person’s reputation to be destroyed without allowing them to address their accuser?  It felt extremely hypocritical by MPR, a very profitable non-profit that was built on the back of Prairie Home Companion’s success. Let’s make no mistake, Prairie Home Companion was the brain child of Garrison Keillor and although he was just one artist among a talented group of artists, the bulk of the creation that was PHC was Keillor’s.  He was responsible for not only its sustained quality over decades but he wrote virtually the entire show every week. I cannot listen to Chris Thile’s Live From Here and completely enjoy it, until Garrison Keillor is welcomed back for a cameo. Thile is a talented artist and his show entertaining but everything he will accomplish is tainted in my mind if he and MPR do not acknowledge that the road to this show’s success was paved by Keillor.

The question is whether the sentence fits the crime in this case?  If taken at face value,  Keillor is guilty of inappropriate leering and flirting in the workplace. It’s not acceptable behavior, but I wonder why was it not dealt with professionally at the time by management? There is zero accusations of sexual assault, nor was there multiple women accusing him. If blundering, inappropriate sexual attraction is sufficient cause to destroy a person’s career and legacy, enough to justify MPR turning its back on its biggest star, then the legacy of the #metoo movement in this case is not justice or a move forward, it resembles more mob action with a guillotine running a muck in the streets of St. Paul, looking for its next victim for blood sport.

In this situation, I hope there is justice for both the accuser and the accused.   I hope that the art that Garrison Keillor created is judged on its merits. Art created by an artist who may be a flawed human being, but when is being human and flawed a fatal disease to be shunned?   Keillor crafted a world I enjoyed visiting on Saturday afternoons for decades. He was committed to support of poetry and support of book arts over his entire career on the radio.  He wrote countless books that bring me enjoyment. If we are to judge each other on only our worst actions and ignore all the good on the other side of the ledger, we will all look ugly in the eye’s of our judges. I for one, do not want to live in that world.  I want to live in a #metoo world that is also equally focused on forgiveness. And for what its worth, I forgive Garrison Keillor.

 

 

Happiness Is Woven Out of The Peace of Hours

May Sarton
Polly Thayer portrait of May Sarton

Fruit of Loneliness

by May Sarton (1912 – 1995)

Now for a little I have fed on loneliness
As on some strange fruit from a frost-touched vine  –
Persimmon in its yellow comeliness,
Or pomegranate-juice the color of wine,
The pucker-mouth crab apple, or late plum –
On fruit of loneliness have I been fed.
But now after short absence I am come
Back from felicity to the wine and bread.
For, being mortal, this luxurious heart
Would starve for you, my dear, I must admit,
If it were held another hour apart
From that food which it alone can comfort it –
I am come home to you, for at the end
I find I cannot live without you, friend.


“Everything that slows us down and forces patience, everything that sets us back into the slow circles of nature, is a help.”

May Sarton


The Work of Happiness

by May Sarton

I thought of happiness, how it is woven
Out of silence in the empty house each day
And how it is not sudden and it is not given
But is creation itself like the growth of a tree.
No one has seen it happen, but inside the bark
Another circle is growing in the expanding ring,
No one has heard the root go deeper in the dark,
But the tree is lifted by this inward work
And its plumes shine, and its leaves are glittering.

So happiness is woven out of the peace of hours
And strikes its roots deep in the house alone:
The old chest in the corner, cool waxed floors,
White curtains softly and continually blown
As the free air moves quietly about the room;
A shelf of books, a table, and the white-washed wall –
These are the dear familiar gods of home,
And here the work of faith can best be done,
The growing tree is green and musical.

For what is happiness but growth in peace,
The timeless sense of time when furniture
Has stood a life’s span in a single place,
And as the air moves, so the old dreams stir
The shining leaves of present happiness
No one has heard thought or listened to a mind,
But where people have lived in inwardness
The air is charged with blessing and does bless;
Windows look out on mountains and the walls are kind.

Dearest, Teach Me How To Hope

Lincoln_Beachey_at_Grant_Park_in_1911
Lincoln Beachey in 1911

The Skipping Rope

by Alfred Lord Tennyson

SURE never yet was antelope
Could skip so lightly by.
Stand off, or else my skipping-rope
Will hit you in the eye.
How lightly Whirls the skipping-rope !
How fairy-like you fly !
Go, get you gone, you muse and mope –
I hate that silly sigh.
Nay, dearest, teach me how to hope,
Or tell me how to die.
There, take it, take my skipping-rope,
And hang yourself thereby.


Lincoln Beachey was a pilot and daredevil beyond compare during the hey day of the bi-plane in the early days of human flight. Beachey mastered flying in ways that other pilots couldn’t conceive, maneuvers so difficult that copycats often lost their lives in their attempt to learn them. Then Beachey committed the greatest flaw of the human condition, he made an assumption that proved fatal. When the monoplane came along, the early versions were constructed with the same flimsy materials that bi-planes were made of, but since monoplanes require faster speeds to provide lift, it meant the g-forces exerted on the structure of the plane are greater as well in aerial manuevers, and when Beachey took his first monoplane up to test its ability to execute the skills he had mastered in a bi-plane, the wings fell off and he plummeted to his death.  Some mistakes you don’t come back from.

Beachey’s ignoble death has relegated him to the back lot of history, with the only early aviators who are commonly known are the Minnesotan Charles Lindbergh who made the first crossing of the Atlantic in 1927 and Amelia Earhart who is famous for crashing into the Pacific Ocean somewhere and was never heard from again.

What does Beachey have to do with poetry? Sometimes we have to fly faster than our wings were designed, and then like Tennyson says, “Teach me how to hope, or tell me how to die.”

Check out the Radiolab podcast link below to hear the whole wonderful story about Lincoln Beachy and how he became immortalized in San Francisco culture as a line in a jump rope song.

https://www.wnycstudios.org/story/159748-loop-loop


Sonnet

by Alfred Lord Tennyson

Me my own fate to lasting sorrow doometh:
Thy woes are birds of passage, transitory:
Thy spirit, circled with a living glory,
In summer still a summer joy resumeth.
Alone my hopeless melancholy gloometh,
Like a lone cypress, through the twilight hoary,
From an old garden where no flower bloometh,
One cypress on an inland promontory.
But yet my lonely spirit follows thine,
As round the rolling earth night follows day:
But yet thy lights on my horizon shine
Into my night when thou art far away;
I am so dark, alas! and thou so bright,
When we two meet there’s never perfect light.

Love Is Proved In The Letting Go

 

Pearl

“poetry is not—except in a very limited sense—a form of self-expression. Who on earth supposes that the pearl expresses the oyster?”

O Dreams, O Destinations

Sonnet 1

by Cecil Day Lewis

For infants time is like a humming shell
Heard between sleep and sleep, wherein the shores
Foam-fringed, wind-fluted of the strange earth dwell
And the sea’s cavernous hunger faintly roars.
It is the humming pole of summer lanes
Whose sound quivers like heat-haze endlessly
Over the corn, over the poppied plains —
An emanation from the earth or sky.
Faintly they hear, through the womb’s lingering haze,
A rumour of that sea to which they are born:
They hear the ringing pole of summer days,
But need not know what hungers for the corn.
They are the lisping rushes in a stream —
Grace-notes of a profound, legato dream


In the last blog I ended with the question that arose from James Baldwin’s poem The Giver; does an artist give up something integral of themselves in giving their art to the world? I didn’t write it at the time, but what was also in my mind is does the same hold true of parents with their children and children with their parents? The greatest act of giving that we can provide to each other is to embrace independence, a belief that our greatest achievements are gifted to the world. But Cecil Day-Lewis’ quote above is equally true. Our children are not an expression of their parents, they are entirely of their own wonderful creation, we only provide a thin shell of protection along the way, their real beauty of their own volition.

March is coming in like a lion, a cold lion in Minneapolis.  It’s -9 F this morning, but the sun is shining and the snow is beautiful. Ice dams decorate every 1950’s era home in my neighborhood and despite the inconvenience of needing to warm up the car before heading out it’s awfully pretty in this big wintry world I live in.  I refuse to grumble about the snow and cold as I sleep most contentedly when its this chilly in a drafty old house next to my beautifully warm partner,  our bodies naturally needing the touch of the other in the night beneath the covers.   I think therapists should send feuding spouses to sleep in old farm houses in Minnesota as touch therapy as they would settle their differences pretty quickly in search of heat in the other’s arms.  If I could sleep every night in winter with my partner, I would get a much better nights sleep all the year round.

Enjoy this brisk Sunday and let your pearls out, whatever they maybe, to roll around freely to catch the sun in all their glory.


Walking Away

by Cecil Day Lewis

It is eighteen years ago, almost to the day –
A sunny day with leaves just turning,
The touch-lines new-ruled – since I watched you play
Your first game of football, then, like a satellite
Wrenched from its orbit, go drifting away

Behind a scatter of boys. I can see
You walking away from me towards the school
With the pathos of a half-fledged thing set free
Into a wilderness, the gait of one
Who finds no path where the path should be.

That hesitant figure, eddying away
Like a winged seed loosened from its parent stem,
Has something I never quite grasp to convey
About nature’s give-and-take – the small, the scorching
Ordeals which fire one’s irresolute clay.

I have had worse partings, but none that so
Gnaws at my mind still. Perhaps it is roughly
Saying what God alone could perfectly show –
How selfhood begins with a walking away,
And love is proved in the letting go.

 

 

I Cannot Tell How Much I Owe

Duke-Ellington-Library-of-Congress
Duke Ellington – Such Sweet Thunder

“Love takes off masks that we fear we cannot live without and know we cannot live within.”

James Baldwin

The Giver  (For Berdis)

By James Baldwin

If the hope of giving
is to love the living,
the giver risks madness
in the act of giving.

Some such lesson I seemed to see
in the faces that surrounded me.

Needy and blind, unhopeful, unlifted,
what gift would give them the gift to be gifted?
 .     . The giver is no less adrift
 .     . than those who are clamouring for the gift.

If they cannot claim it, if it is not there,
if their empty fingers beat the empty air
and the giver goes down on his knees in prayer
knows that all of his giving has been for naught
and that nothing was ever what he thought
and turns in his guilty bed to stare
at the starving multitudes standing there
and rises from bed to curse at heaven,
he must yet understand that to whom much is given
much will be taken, and justly so:
I cannot tell how much I owe.


James Baldwin was a prolific writer but not a prolific poet. At first glance The Giver is not a sonnet.  However, look closer. From the line Needy and blind, unhopeful, unlifted to the close every line is exactly 10 syllables long except the two lines: The giver is no less adrift than those who are clamouring for the gift.  The entire final two stanzas are 15 lines, because of one triplet.

If they cannot claim it, if it is not there,
if their empty fingers beat the empty air
and the giver goes down on his knees in prayer

I have written several sonnets which could not be contained by traditional rhyming sequences or by fourteen lines. These sonnets fall under the umbrella of protection of the same muse, but force their way out into unique forms because the poet has a need to break the rules and let the poem find its own way. Atypical sonnets can challenge us with questions about why the poem is structured the way it is. The themes of The Giver fall squarely in the purview of sonnets throughout literature with its personal first person voice and its message of reconciliation and atonement.

Another great artist of the Harlem renaissance, Duke Ellington, wrote and recorded a series of jazz songs that were inspired by the plays of William Shakespeare and titled several of the songs sonnets as a way to honor the great bard. I have included the Sonnet for Caesar below, preformed as a collaboration between Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn, as a sound track, as you read The Giver a second time and ponder the question whether Baldwin’s opening line is true, and why many artists who give their art to the world are a little mad;  If the hope of giving is to love the living, the giver risks madness in the act of giving.

 


 

The Giver  (For Berdis)

By James Baldwin

If the hope of giving
is to love the living,
the giver risks madness
in the act of giving.

Some such lesson I seemed to see
in the faces that surrounded me.

Needy and blind, unhopeful, unlifted,
what gift would give them the gift to be gifted?
 .     . The giver is no less adrift
 .     . than those who are clamouring for the gift.

If they cannot claim it, if it is not there,
if their empty fingers beat the empty air
and the giver goes down on his knees in prayer
knows that all of his giving has been for naught
and that nothing was ever what he thought
and turns in his guilty bed to stare
at the starving multitudes standing there
and rises from bed to curse at heaven,
he must yet understand that to whom much is given
much will be taken, and justly so:
I cannot tell how much I owe.