Definition 11. “Poetry is a series of explanations of life, fading off into horizons too swift for explanations.”
Let Me Tell You What A Poem Brings
by Juan Felipe Herrera
Before you go further,
let me tell you what a poem brings,
first, you must know the secret, there is no poem
to speak of, it is a way to attain a life without boundaries,
yes, it is that easy, a poem, imagine me telling you this,
instead of going day by day against the razors, well,
the judgments, all the tick-tock bronze, a leather jacket
sizing you up, the fashion mall, for example, from
the outside you think you are being entertained,
when you enter, things change, you get caught by surprise,
your mouth goes sour, you get thirsty, your legs grow cold
standing still in the middle of a storm, a poem, of course,
is always open for business too, except, as you can see,
it isn’t exactly business that pulls your spirit into
the alarming waters, there you can bathe, you can play,
you can even join in on the gossip—the mist, that is,
the mist becomes central to your existence.
by Carl Sandburg
Fair is the rising morn when o’er the sky
The orient sun expands his roseate ray,
And lovely to the Bard’s enthusiast eye
Fades the meek radiance of departing day;
But fairer is the smile of one we love,
Than all the scenes in Nature’s ample sway.
And sweeter than the music of the grove,
The voice that bids us welcome. Such delight
EDITH! is mine, escaping to thy sight
From the hard durance of the empty throng.
Too swiftly then towards the silent night
Ye Hours of happiness! ye speed along,
Whilst I, from all the World’s cold cares apart,
Pour out the feelings of my burthen’d heart.
There are blog posts I know I should end without commentary, let the poems speak for themselves. This is one of those posts, where my inner voice screams “Stop, you’ll ruin it,” and like an idiot, I ignore that voice and push on anyways.
I think there are many others, like myself, who find respite in poetry. I believe it is a global, powerful, informed group of individuals, who by their very nature, are diverse, complicated and have developed, maybe without even knowing it, their own definitions of poetry, like Carl Sandburg….
Not As One, But As A Tribe
by T. A. Fry
Not as one, but as a tribe
Held to a mark befit our bent,
With poets as our willing scribes.
A writ of civic sacraments.
A language we can all abide;
Like wind before a wild horse.
Ideas that sweep along our lives
Allegory to avail our course.
Who lauds our lyric heroes now?
Inspirer’s of a greater good.
Words to guide what we avow,
Signposts in a darkening wood.
What laureate shall stake their claim
As mirror to a better world?
And silence critics that proclaim
They alone turn sand to pearls.
“Love does not begin and end the way we seem to think it does. Love is a battle, love is a war; love is a growing up.”
by James Weldon Johnson (1871 – 1938)
My heart be brave, and do not falter so,
Nor utter more that deep, despairing wail.
Thy way is very dark and drear I know,
But do not let thy strength and courage fail;
For certain as the raven-winged night
Is followed by the bright and blushing morn,
Thy coming morrow will be clear and bright;
’Tis darkest when the night is furthest worn.
Look up, and out, beyond, surrounding clouds,
And do not in thine own gross darkness grope,
Rise up, and casting off thy hind’ring shrouds,
Cling thou to this, and ever inspiring hope:
Tho’ thick the battle and tho’ fierce the fight,
There is a power making for the right.
Le Sporting-club de Monte Carlo (For Lena Horne)
By James Baldwin
The lady is a tramp
The lady is a sight
the lady devastated
an alley or two
reverberated through the valley
which leads to me, and you
the lady is the apple
of God’s eye:
He’s cool enough about it
but He tends to strut a little
when she passes by
the lady is a wonder
daughter of the thunder
with the voice of ages
singing us through.
“Love her but leave her wild….”
– Atticus Finch in Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird
I was in Calgary, Alberta this week, reading the morning paper, and came across an article regarding the small Canadian press Coach House Books. This prestigious literary firm is taking a hiatus on accepting new poetry manuscripts, as they are rethinking their business model on the financial viability of publishing poetry moving forward. Such is the state of things in the poetry world. I appreciate those of you who take the time to read my blog and choose to make poetry part of your day.
I enjoy simple Saturday mornings, waking up with nothing better to do than write. Yesterday was one such morning. My subconscious had been messing with several ideas over the course of the week that turned into the following sonnet. Celebrating my children’s birthday has that effect on me, contemplating passage of time.
A Neil Gaiman quote I totally relate to is:
“Tomorrow may be hell, but today was a good writing day, and on the good writing days nothing else matters.”
This sonnet, Not Too Many, has all the things I enjoy about writing sonnets; double meanings, contradictions, internal rhyming, good mouth feel when read aloud and the ability to be reinterpreted by the reader.
A note about burls. A burl on a tree is a reaction to some kind of foreign stress, most often by an insect, virus or fungus, that causes the tree to wall it up in beauty, protecting itself and the newcomer, changing the very nature of their interaction. Burls can be above ground and visible or below ground and hidden but are always covered in bark and nurtured by the tree.
Not Too Many
By T. A. Fry
Why does old love wend its own designs? In the game of love, I have taken licks Been knocked down, learned new tricks, only to find Sometimes, it was mere lust or politics. Then came children and something wild grew. Love became an ache that took my breath away It’s fierce, complex, bigger than I ever knew. Love’s not negotiable, it’s here to stay, And stay and stay, like a burl on a tree, Each ring a wrinkle, love’s softer side, Another bulge to indulge entirely. For love is the lotion that tanned this hide. If I had a choice, not one, but any I would mend love with words, not too many.
“Things need not have happened to be true. Tales and adventures are the shadow truths that will endure when mere facts are dust and ashes and forgotten.”
by Neil Gaiman
I don’t think that I’ve been in love as such,
Although I liked a few folk pretty well.
Love must be vaster than my smiles or touch.
For brave men died and empires rose and fell
For love, girls follow boys to foreign lands.
And men have followed women into hell.
In plays and poems someone understands,
There’s something makes us more than blood and bone,
And more than biological demands.
For me love’s like the wind unseen, unknown.
I see the trees are bending where it’s been.
I know that it leaves wreckage where it’s blown.
I really don’t know what I love you means.
I think it means don’t leave me here alone.
For more information check out Neil Gaiman’s blog where this sonnet was originally published.
Maybe love is the story, the fairy tale, that we tell ourselves because it is truer and longer lasting than the days we have already forgotten from this past week. And sonnets, the psalms by which we pass those stories down.
by T. A. Fry
Wherein it begins; Salvation. To caress a nape of neck Or silky hair upon a woman’s hock. To crave creation of goose bumps that fleck A breast or smiles that shiver like a shock. I swear no fealty to love’s mirth, nor bow Before any Goddess’s pain or pleasure. I’ll take my memories as a trove and vow When old, to view them at my leisure.
What’s done is done, move on, no turning back. No more open arms. You’ve bled the good From willing hearts, with promises that smack Of dishonest pleas, when stay you never could. Must I void the truth of love once cherished, Just for being human and it perished.
“Either America will destroy ignorance or ignorance will destroy the United States.”
W. E. B. Du Bois
From The Dark Tower
by Countee Cullen
We shall not always plant while others reap
The golden increment of bursting fruit,
Not always countenance, abject and mute
That lesser men should hold their brothers cheap;
Not everlastingly while others sleep
Shall we beguile their limbs with mellow flute,
Not always bend to some more subtle brute;
We were not made eternally to weep.
The night whose sable breast relieves the stark
White stars is no less lovely being dark,
And there are buds that cannot bloom at all
In light, but crumple, piteous, and fall;
So in the dark we hide the heart that bleeds,
And wait, and tend our agonizing seeds
Countee Cullen was a poet, a playwright, a translator, an essayist, a critic, a children’s author and scholar. He managed all that creativity during an intense 25 year career. Countee was part of the Harlem social elite, marrying W. E. B Du Bois’ daughter, with some pomp and circumstance only to have the marriage fail in less than three years under the weight of great expectations. Countee was highly influenced by Yeats, Shelley and A. E. Housman, choosing a classical style of poetry at a time other Harlem Renaissance writers were branching off into more uncharted waters. Countee was unfairly criticized during his career for writing in a style that would appeal to a cross over of white readers and be more publishable. I think his poetry sings with a genuine voice that was of his choosing alone. Countee said it best; “My poetry, I think, has become the way of my giving out what music is within me.” Countee dealt with a wide range of themes in his poetry, but always came back to love.
Song In Spite of Myself
by Countee Cullen
Never love with all your heart,
It only ends in aching;
And bit by bit to the smallest part
That organ will be breaking.
Never love with all your mind,
It only ends in fretting;
In musing on sweet joys behind,
too poignant for forgetting.
Never love with all your soul,
for such there is no ending;
though a mind that frets may find control,
and a shattered heart find mending.
Give but a grain of the heart’s rich seed,
Confine some undercover,
And when love goes, bid him God-speed,
and find another lover.
“I have decided to stick with love. Hate is too great a burden to bear.”
Martin Luther King
Yet Do I Marvel
By Countee Cullen (1903 – 1946)
I doubt not God is good, well-meaning, kind,
And did He stoop to quibble could tell why
The little buried mole continues blind,
Why flesh that mirrors Him must some day die,
Make plain the reason tortured Tantalus
Is baited by the fickle fruit, declare
If merely brute caprice dooms Sisyphus
To struggle up a never-ending stair.
Inscrutable His ways are, and immune
To catechism by a mind too strewn
With petty cares to slightly understand
What awful brain compels His awful hand.
Yet do I marvel at this curious thing:
To make a poet black, and bid him sing!
by Langston Hughes (1902 – 1967)
Sometimes there’s a wind in the Georgia dusk
That cries and cries and cries
Its lonely pity through the Georgia dusk
Veiling what the darkness hides
Sometimes there’s blood in the Georgia dusk
Left by a streak of sun
A crimson trickle in the Georgia dusk
Whose Blood? …Everyone’s
Sometimes a wind in the Georgia dusk
Scatters hate like seed
To sprout its bitter barriers
Where the sunsets bleed
Some time when the river is ice ask me
mistakes I have made. Ask me whether
what I have done is my life. Others
have come in their slow way into
my thought, and some have tried to help
or to hurt: ask me what difference
their strongest love or hate has made.
I will listen to what you say.
You and I can turn and look
at the silent river and wait. We know
the current is there, hidden; and there
are comings and goings from miles away
that hold the stillness exactly before us.
What the river says, that is what I say.
There are certain poems which stand out because of one line. Not to say the entire poem doesn’t have meaning, but there are lines in poems that are like thunderbolts in my brain, electric in the resonance from the shared understanding with the poet. A line or even a few words, which are a whispered secret between us, a secret I am surprised to see on paper more elegantly than I could ever express.
Ask Me by William Stafford is one of those poems. It is a poem I read and re-read more than any other single poem because of one line; “Ask me whether what I have done is my life.” I enjoy my life. I am proud of what I have accomplished, but there is this voice that has arisen in middle age that nags: “I am more than an amalgam of what I have done. I am more than the vector of days, months, and years of experience, more than my successes and failures. My inner life is bigger than what I have accomplished and ever will accomplish.”
Ask Me is as close to a sonnet hiding in plain sight that Stafford published in his life time. It is 14 lines, nearly 10 syllables per line. I have no idea whether Stafford had any conscious associations to a sonnet structure when he wrote this poem, for its power lays not in its structure but in its open-ended questions and images it creates in my mind. Stafford allows me to take solace or vitriol, depending on my mood, from the linkages of the frozen rivers of my life that are at once unmoving and flowing ever faster downstream. Stafford was a pacifist, whose poetry resonates with an acceptance of the human condition and a gentle push to enjoy yourself, even if things are going to hell all around you, with a reminder that this life we live is pretty amazing.
Oh, think not I am faithful to a vow!
Faithless am I save to love’s self alone.
Were you not lovely I would leave you now:
After the feet of beauty fly my own.
Were you not still my hunger’s rarest food,
And water ever to my wildest thirst,
I would desert you — think not but I would! —
And seek another as I sought you first.
But you are mobile as the veering air,
And all your charms more changeful than the tide,
Wherefore to be inconstant is no care:
I have but to continue at your side.
So wanton, light and false, my love, are you,
I am most faithless when I most am true.
That they shall suffer.” Swift doth young Love flee,
And we stand wakened, shivering from our dream.
Then if we study Nature we are wise.
Thus do the few who live but with the day:
The scientific animals are they—
Lady, this is my sonnet to your eyes.
She Walks In Beauty
by Lord Byron
She walks in beauty, like the night
Of cloudless climes and starry skies;
And all that’s best of dark and bright
Meet in her aspect and her eyes;
Thus mellowed to that tender light
Which heaven to gaudy day denies.
One shade the more, one ray the less,
Had half impaired the nameless grace
Which waves in every raven tress,
Or softly lightens o’er her face;
Where thoughts serenely sweet express,
How pure, how dear their dwelling-place.
And on that cheek, and o’er that brow,
So soft, so calm, yet eloquent,
The smiles that win, the tints that glow,
But tell of days in goodness spent,
A mind at peace with all below,
A heart whose love is innocent!
“Until you have seen the Sistine Chapel, you can have no adequate conception of what man is capable of accomplishing.”
Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe
New Years is either the best or worst holiday of the year, depending on your frame of mind on December 31. There are years in our lives that, in retrospect, we celebrate with great cheer while other years it’s refreshing to finally put them in the rear view mirror and hang up a new calendar to welcome a fresh start. I’ll be honest, for a liberal white man in America, 2017 sucked. I have never felt so out of step with the leadership of my country or ashamed of the actions of a minority of my brethren for their hateful voices and sexist, racist behavior that fuels a divisive unproductive rhetoric and short-lived trajectory. There were many changes in America in 2017 and almost none of them were in the direction I think the majority of Americans want it to go. We face important challenges as a country and as a planet, and if compromise and reasonable discourse is not possible then real solutions seem even more out of our reach.
On a Sunday morning, December 31, 2017, I am waking up to a temperature of -16 degrees F in Minneapolis, minus -27 degrees Celsius. This is air temperature not wind chill factor. On a frigid morning like this its hard to put in perspective our impact on our climate. If you believe in the science of climate change or not, I have several questions? What is lost personally if global warming has been proven as the most likeliest of facts based on evidence that climate change is real? What personally will you sacrifice by accepting climate change as a very real and dangerous possibility? How would your life be diminished by creating the opening for the possibility that we need to change our technology and our economy? Is the cost of holding on to your beliefs that climate change is not real worth the chance that you were wrong considering the potential impacts to your children, your grand children and the world at large?
If all the ice covering Antarctica, Greenland and mountain glaciers around the world were to melt, sea level would rise about 70 meters (230 feet). It will take thousands of years for this to occur, and yet to put that in one tiny perspective, Vatican city sits at an elevation above sea level of 62 meters. St. Peter’s square is only 18 meters above sea level. The four warmest years on record globally were 2014, 2015, 2016 and 2017.
We live at a time when too much dialogue scoffs at the credibility of science. People want to believe that vaccinations aren’t safe, that GMO food is not identical in nutrition and health benefits to “organic” food and that global warming isn’t real, only because it’s so much easier to remain firmly entrenched in our familiar beliefs, surrounded by other people who look and sound exactly as we do.
A question too few ask is what role should art play in inspiring scientific solutions to the most egregious challenges facing humanity? How does art support science and science support art? I believe the two are connected in the constant need for growth in the human experience.
The Paris Climate Accords, have been accepted as reasonable by every industrialized country in the world, except our Denier in Chief, President Donald Trump. He has set a goal to limit global warming to 1.5 to 2 degrees centigrade above pre-industrialized levels. Is that possible? I don’t know, if we achieve that standard, the world’s oceans rise 40 to 50 centimeters by 2100. It may not sound like much, but if the climate warms by only 2 degrees or more C we risk setting a reaction in motion that won’t stop releasing methane frozen in arctic tundra soils, releasing enormous amounts of greenhouse gases that will create a permanent one way ticket to a future where large portions of Asia, the middle east and Africa will become uninhabitable and global ice will decline over time to swell ocean levels to unthinkable levels. It’s estimated that approximately 1/3 of the world’s population lives at an elevation of 100 meters or less above sea level. And yet we have too many people who wake up when its -16 degrees F in Minneapolis this morning and want to pretend that just because weather can still be frigid that climate change is not real.
It’s hard to know in the midst of change, whether the gestation is worth the painful birth and whether the patience required throughout a long nurturing will yield something better. A wine-maker never knows whether that year’s bottles will age into something miraculous, a teacher can’t know what their impact will be on a student’s life and must maintain the steadfast belief that change is not only possible but highly likely. So it is on the journey of creating new ideas for a better society.
In matters of education, love, art, wine and the future of the world, an article of faith must surround what is most important in our lives even more than science. Science is a way to help make more educated decisions that are, by their very nature, imperfect and will need constant correction based on better newer insight and information. It doesn’t prove science is wrong. It proves it is human.
It is through faith in trying to do the right thing, using the best information we have, that we will nurture hope through conflict, protect the fragility of human confidence during uncertainty and foster from belief a better reality. 2017 was a difficult year to be a male white liberal scientist poet in America. The daily bombardment of insanity to depravity that played out in the media became exhausting and depressing. I can only hope all the trash we aired in 2017 will be a turning point to creating something better. Maybe 2017 will mobilize the silent majority that hopes for a better future. A majority who believe that through acceptance of diversity, social justice will create a better community in which to live. Those that want a democratic system based on rule of law that doesn’t solely worship at the feet of the almighty dollar but also values sustainability, protects the environment and fosters the arts. People who are willing to hold government accountable and pursue change of an economic system that enriched the 500 hundred wealthiest people on the planet with another trillion dollars in one year at the expense of impoverishing a generation of young people under the burden of soaring housing costs, under employment, un-affordable health care and student debt. The “haves” partied hardy in 2017 on the backs of the have-nots. And if you’re wearing your gold 2018 hat and tooting your own horn, you best look around at those who aren’t celebrating with you and ask why?
It’s difficult to admit privilege without it feeling like you are negating your own hard work and accomplishments. Privilege is largely invisible to those that have it. I won the lottery at birth. I was born white, male in the early 1960’s in the United States of America, into a middle class family, with college educations, in the suburbs of Minnesota where public education was a pillar of the community. I graduated from high school at a rare time of no active war that the United States was participating. There was still a draft like prior generations of men in America, but no active conflict to cause conscription into a military conflict, like the generation of men just a few years ahead of me, that saw their lives forever changed during the Vietnam war. I graduated from high school at time when you could still work and pay for a college education at the University of Minnesota with wages earned from summer employment, something impossible today. I entered the work force at a time as computer technology was just starting to unlock the power of productivity, information sharing and communication, guaranteeing an economy that would grow over time. In the history of the world, there are few other games of chance that have rewarded so richly. So when my fellow white, male Americans persist through their hateful to foolish behavior in reinforcing the stereo type of white men as ugly Americans, with vain language, vulgar sexist behavior and a much more dangerous pandering to extremist right-wing ideologies in an attempt to hold on to their power that came not solely as the result of their own hard work alone, but as their birth right from a complete lottery of chance rigged in their favor, it can feel like we have lost ground as a society in creating a more enriching, sustainable world for our children. A generation of children that is much more diverse, complex and disadvantaged than the one I grew up in suburban America.
All is not lost. I was reminded of the importance of living in the moment yesterday when during a restorative justice circle in preparation for 2018, the circle keeper started with a simple request: “Don’t count your days, make this day count.” I choose to use art as inspiration in my life to help me preserve through challenging times. I feel that art instills wonder, wonder instills kindness, kindness instills understanding. I believe it is with understanding that we will shape our future. I don’t pretend to have any of the answers, and yet I am open to new ideas. I have faith that the current generation of young people will shape a better world than the one we are bequeathing to them. I don’t think they have on the same blinders as their parents and will steer their own course. They no longer believe the American dream, that they will have a future of greater prosperity only through hard work. I believe they see that their accomplishments are only impactful when working cooperatively in their community to foster real change at a local level that can grow to something greater. It is the current squandering of America’s opportunity for leadership that is most disheartening at the present. This too shall pass. And the political will shall shift to something more sustainable as more and more people watch what is happening on a global scale and ask what can I do to make a difference in my community?
Michelangelo was a poet as well as a genius sculptor and painter. He wrote a sonnet four long years into the painting of the Sistine chapel. Though this sonnet loses some of its humor and rhyme in its translation into English, it shows how faith and hard work power our greatest achievements. For even a man who claims he is not a painter, created one of the greatest paintings of all time. The Sistine chapel was Michelangelo’s first fresco, proving you can get it right the first time, even on achievements that may seem impossible at first if you believe in yourself and those around you. Can we change our world? I believe we can, if we look for wonder in all that surrounds us. Wonder will open the door to understanding that the impossible is possible.
Michelangelo: To Giovanni da Pistoia
“When the Author Was Painting the Vault of the Sistine Chapel”
Translated by Gail Mazuur
I’ve already grown a goiter from this torture,
hunched up here like a cat in Lombardy
(or anywhere else where the stagnant water’s poison).
My stomach’s squashed under my chin, my beard’s
pointing at heaven, my brain’s crushed in a casket,
my breast twists like a harpy’s. My brush,
above me all the time, dribbles paint
so my face makes a fine floor for droppings!
My haunches are grinding into my guts,
my poor ass strains to work as a counterweight,
every gesture I make is blind and aimless.
My skin hangs loose below me, my spine’s
all knotted from folding over itself.
I’m bent taut as a Syrian bow.
Because I’m stuck like this, my thoughts
are crazy, perfidious tripe:
anyone shoots badly through a crooked blowpipe.
My painting is dead.
Defend it for me, Giovanni, protect my honor.
I am not in the right place—I am not a painter.