Youmans (pronounced like 'yeoman' with an 's' added) is the best-kept secret
among contemporary American writers. --John Wilson, editor, Books and Culture Marly Youmans is a novelist and poet out of sync with the times
but in tune with the ages. --First Things

Monday, March 31, 2014

Richard Nester on "Buffalo Laughter"

Cover art by Lavina Blossom
Hemet, California: Kelsay Books, 2014

Buffalo Laughter

Every year the buffalo get
together like a bunch of old actors.
There are only enough of them
left to make a movie.
The head buffalo plans something,
but the old times and the new times
are one time now, and it never quite happens.
There's a buffet--grass mostly and some water.
For a couple of hours the buffalo laughter
is plentiful, stampeding around the room
and then settling like snow.
It isn't as sad as you might think.
Later, there's a bill for the busted chairs.
Richard Nester's collection of poems, Buffalo Laughter (Kelsay Books, 2014), will soon be featured at Lady Word of Mouth. In the meantime, here are some ruminations about the title from Richard, with a splash of advice to young poets.
As far as my collection goes, why the title? Several years ago I came across a kind of workshop precept advanced by Allen Ginsberg that one should never pair an adjective with a noun that embodies a quality already present in the noun. It so happens that Robert Bly violates the precept in a poem I am fond of reciting (partly because it’s short) when he says about striving

           How strange to think of giving up all ambition!
           Suddenly I see with such clear eyes
           The white flake of snow
           That has just fallen in the horse's mane!

Isn’t snow by its nature white? Perhaps not any more. In any case, I enjoy both Bly’s violation of the precept and the precept itself because Ginsberg’s advice provides a spur to creativity of the sort particular to poetry, and is likely to give birth to my favorite trope—the oxymoron. There don’t seem to be all that many oxymorons in English poetry (assuming the Norton Anthology provides us with a representative sample) prior to Robert Herrick, but following his announcement that a “wild civility” is to be preferred in art as well as female fashion, the oxymorons start to bloom like wild flowers.

So all I was originally trying to do with “buffalo laughter” was to please myself by making an oxymoron. I had been watching a television documentary the night before that described the state of the American continent before the arrival of Europeans. Of course, buffalo were plentiful then. However, the show made the somewhat ironic point that this plentitude wasn’t really a “natural” condition, but was rather the result of a complex symbiosis existing between the plains Indians and buffalo wherein Native Americans by engaging in slash and burn agriculture had created more space for buffalo to prosper. So even in those relatively pristine days, ecologically speaking, humankind was still impacting its environment in unpredictable ways.

In reviewing the poem following its appearance in Floyd County Moonshine—a very good magazine currently being published in the small town I grew up in—the local newspaper in its review of that issue described it as “whimsical.” Okay, but I had ambitions for it beyond mere whimsy. I considered it as embedding a kind of ecological comment in its structure. As the poem anthropomorphizes the buffalo, it simultaneously “bisonizes” humanity. The buffalo may well be laughing sardonically when the “bill” for the chairs “busted” by humanity comes due. Nevertheless, it’s still not as “sad as you might think.” After all, the universe will hardly be stopping to weep when the bill is at last presented.

Was I thinking about all this when I wrote the poem. Yes, absolutely. And also, just as absolutely—no! If I may pause to offer some advice to beginning poets, just give yourself a chance, by whatever means necessary, to get lucky, and give yourself the maximum opportunity to learn those means by reading and reading and reading. I can’t tell you exactly what those means are because some of them may not have been invented yet. After all, who told Dickinson that it might be a good idea to use dashes as a primary means of punctuation, and what’s to keep your adoption of the same style from being mere affectation. Nothing. Poetry makes no promises.

How the collection came to be called “Buffalo Laughter” is just that the title poem didn’t seem to fit with most of the other poems precisely because it was so “whimsical.” But I loved it, and so I created a rationale for its inclusion by calling the whole volume that and by positioning it close to other “nature” poems, like “Dune Grass,” whose anthropomorphizing is less obvious. Perhaps, between the two of them, one gets another resonance, which is that the subject of the book as a whole is about humanity’s place in the scheme of things that we create in the stories that we tell about ourselves—all kinds of stories, even Bible stories, which were among the first stories that I heard in my life. Way before Doctor Seuss or the Illiad, which by the way is alluded to in the poem “Between You and Me.”


  1. Marly, thanks for sharing about this book! I really enjoyed the title poem, but as I read the rumination about the title, I wonder if "buffalo laughter" is an oxymoron so much as an improbable but curiously delightful image. :) But I shall not think overmuch on it. I am interested in the idea of the place of humanity in the stories we tell of ourselves; we do think highly of ourselves, but then, we're capable of some pretty fabulous (okay, and some pretty dismal) things. This looks to be an interesting collection!

    1. Thank you for popping by, Juiie, and I'm glad you liked the post!

  2. Will need to ponder Richard's expose' on the oxymoron, but very happy to have read it: "There don’t seem to be all that many oxymorons in English poetry . . . prior to Robert Herrick, but following his announcement that a 'wild civility' is to be preferred in art as well as female fashion, the oxymorons start to bloom like wild flowers." A wild civility in female fashion--maybe in Herrick's day, and when I was young. Now there's often a wild uncivility so common as to have become trite--what with the young vandalizing lovely skin with unlovely tattoos. Bly's emphastically "white" flake of snow I too like very much--and Richard's ability to morph buffalo into human beings--.

    1. Glad you liked and were interested--I expect a medievalist can pronounce on the pre-Herrick oxymoron!

  3. (Hope "unlovely tattoos" doesn't violate Ginsberg's precept unnecessarily.)

    1. Given what I've seen of "the worst tattoos" on line, that phrase in ink on skin would be something like "unluvli tat twos." Amazing how many can't spell, or else how they get caught up in the letters and forget the word.

  4. What a great post! I’ve never met a poem of Richard Nester’s I didn’t like, but “Buffalo Laughter” made me, well…laugh. After reading his fascinating post-poem comments - which simultaneously amused me, made me think, and made me want to write – I know the next course will serve even more than the wit and well-chosen words of the appetizer poem. My appetite is fully whetted for the rest of the book.

    1. Hi there, Ricki--

      I saw that you said some lovely things at facebook as well, and thank you so much for being supportive of Richard and poetry books! Soon there will be a post at the Lady Word of Mouth blogspot site as well.

  5. Thank you, Marly, for posting this thoughtful and insightful piece! Richard Nester's commentary on his title poem for the collection Buffalo Laughter greatly enhanced my enjoyment of the poem, and the collection in general. On my first reading, I imagined Buffalo breaking chairs thus giving humanity a reason to evict them from the room--the green and fertile plains on which they lived, their home so carefully tended by the stewards, the plains tribes. Richard Nester's perspective pulled me right back. I loved humanity being given the bill, and then a sort of indifferent shrug by the universe--reminding us not to take ourselves too seriously. And, he also gives great advice to beginning poets (great advice for all poets, really), advice which I shall be coming back to, again and again.

    1. Robin, so glad you liked it--I'm sure Richard will be pleased by those comments.

  6. Enjoyed the piece very much. Thank you for giving it a place. Richard is a wonderful poet and I'm always pleased to learn more of his thoughts on poetry and about his process.

    1. Lovely to get a comment from the cover artist, Lavina!

      Yes, I wish there was more from him online... We'll have to improve that situation!


Alas, I must once again remind large numbers of Chinese salesmen and other worldwide peddlers that if they fall into the Gulf of Spam, they will be eaten by roaming Balrogs. The rest of you, lovers of grace, poetry, and horses (nod to Yeats--you do not have to be fond of horses), feel free to leave fascinating missives and curious arguments.