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Monday, October 31, 2016

All Hallows Eve

My daughter's pumpkin...
If you want to see the rest of the family pumpkins, you'll have to go here. There's the traditional and the poop-emoji pumpkin and one spewing seeds. Have a good All Hallows Eve and a wonderful All Saints Day.

Saturday, October 29, 2016

Autumn skies

Phone snap taken during a ramble down from the Canadian border
through Saranac Lake and Lake Placid and the Cascades.

Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness, 
   Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun; 
Conspiring with him how to load and bless 
   With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eves run; 
To bend with apples the moss'd cottage-trees, 
   And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core; 
      To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells 
   With a sweet kernel; to set budding more, 
And still more, later flowers for the bees, 
Until they think warm days will never cease, 
      For summer has o'er-brimm'd their clammy cells.  --from Keats, "To Autumn"

Indian Summer has left us, scattering yellow and red calling cards in its wake. We've had four snows already, though only one stuck around for a while. I've worn boots and winter coat already and need to lay in a new supply of wood for the fireplaces. Last night, after coming home from a Fellini-worthy ceremonial evening at St. George's in Schenectady, I found a pot of chocolate waiting on the stove. I'm not ready for the great brunt, though it is on its way, the relentless wheel gathering icicles and turning.

Here's a little poem for the season, one that recently appeared in Autumn Sky Poetry Daily, an online 'zine edited by Christine Klocek-Lim. I wrote it after reading some Robert Walser poems. I didn't like them as much as I wanted to like them, but perhaps it is that pesky trouble of translation. (Also at Autumn Sky Poetry Daily: "I Met My True Love Walking" and "Epistle to F. D." The "True Love Walking" poem bears a slantwise relationship to Yeats's "Down by the Salley Gardens." "F. D. is that grand teller of his own marvelous story, Frederick Douglass.)

Sinking into the turf, demise presided over by leaves
and gambrel shapes and one distant purple mountain.

Landscape With Icefall

Imagine that a chandelier has fallen from the sky,
     And dangerous cut glass lies shattered on the ground.
Imagine red, red blood that runs through heaps of emeralds.
     Oh, no, not that: cold winter grass will never bleed.

Imagine crumpled winter leaves, still latched onto the tree,
     That shake and rattle out the news to winter winds.
Imagine the blue hills around the frozen lake hold still,
     That every swerving line of landscape’s packed with soul.

Imagine angels peering down in curiosity
     To see the glitter of that dropped chrysanthemum,
And how I have by some strange mortal magic thrust my grief
     Into the hills and lake, the grass and scattered ice.

Imagine that a chandelier has fallen from the sky,
     Its mighty shine shared out among the grass and stones.
The little demons of the hills slink into shade and cry
     Because my sorrow’s cold against their naked feet.

Lake Placid skating rink


Thursday, October 27, 2016

Rerun: 4 Digby video poems from The Throne of Psyche

Mercer University Press, 2011,
in hardcover or paperback
Cover art by Clive Hicks-Jenkins
Design by Mary-Frances Glover Burt

Carving pumpkins, herding cats and progeny, writing some tight small poems in a pause mid-novel: I've been empty of blog posts somehow, so please take this little homage to and appreciation of Paul as an apology. More anon.

Videos by UK-born Paul Digby, composer, videographer, singer, fine cabinet-maker, painter, knitwear designer, computer genius, and more. There is nothing this man cannot do! Or so I suspect. He writes lovely music, but evidently that's not enough for him--he has to put the rest of us to shame in innumerable categories of creation with his apparent belief that he is a human being and so can do things! He lives in an obscure corner of Ohio. I can't imagine what they can do to deserve him.

This one is a riposte to Billy Collins, for writing a poem about taking off Emily Dickinson's clothes, a thing that is forbidden!

And this one is about the sad adventures of a nesting doll. It's a harsh, cruel world out there, full of unexpected powers.

Here is where I let it all hang out about being a Southerner in the bitter, snowy, lakeside winters of upstate New York. Do I always feel like this? Of course not! Snow is magical.

And this poem I wrote when my eldest child had meningitis--about the strong, sudden knowing that he would live, when things were at their worst.

Friday, October 14, 2016

Touchstones and the Nobel kerfuffle

Muse reading a scroll by an open chest.
Attic red-figure lekythos, ca. 435-425 BC. From Boeotia.
Musée du Louvre. Public domain, Wikipedia.

Bob Dylan . . . can be read and should be read [italics mine], and is a great poet in the grand English poetic tradition. --Sara Danius, Nobel Permanent Secretary 
There’s little that’s inherently controversial about praising words originally meant for vocal delivery. Playwrights have won the Nobel Prize for Literature before. But in an era when songwriting and song performance and song recording are tied together, when many musicians’ literary voices are first received via their literal voices, lyrics alone should inevitably have a hard time competing with “pure” poetry or prose. --Spencer Kornhaber (what a name!) at The Atlantic
A great many of my friends and acquaintances have been busy proving that Dylan either deserves or does not deserve the Nobel, given for the written portion of his work considered as literature. A great many famous people have done likewise.

Being a peaceable sort, I leave them to the joy of it.

But I'm pleased that people are talking about poetry.... What has interested me about this whole episode is the common lack of any sort of clarity about what poetry is, or what high achievement in poetry might look like. Instead, most people are carried away by a tsunami of love for Dylan, or by their anger at the debasement of literature--the latter group assumes that we all know what literature is, though I haven't seen any defining examples or analysis.

The problem with the award is that is given only for the written part of a singer-songwriter's work. But it's hard for us to look at just the words. The songs keep getting in the way, don't they?

I suggest a simple comparison based on some touchstone work by Dylan and a poet, a this versus that to let us consider and meditate on what it means to: a.) hold up lyrics to a song as written literature and b.) to hold up a poem meant to stand alone as written literature to be read silently or aloud.

Here are written lyrics to a Dylan song--do your best to not hear the music in your head. (Well, I can't do it, and I doubt very much that the Nobel committee could either!) Again, remember that the award is for the written words only. If you're my age--well, if you grew up in the Western world--you probably grew up with Dylan songs running through your head, so it's quite a challenge to look just at the words.

I will let Rolling Stone pick the song. Here's the no. 1 on their countdown list, 10 Greatest Bob Dylan Songs.

Once upon a time you dressed so fine
Threw the bums a dime in your prime, didn't you?
People call say 'beware doll, you're bound to fall'
You thought they were all kidding you
You used to laugh about
Everybody that was hanging out
Now you don't talk so loud
Now you don't seem so proud
About having to be scrounging your next meal

How does it feel, how does it feel?
To be without a home
Like a complete unknown, like a rolling stone

Ahh you've gone to the finest schools, alright Miss Lonely
But you know you only used to get juiced in it

The first fourteen lines of "Like a Rolling Stone" give you a taste, but maybe you'd better read the whole thing here. Copyright, copyright! I don't want to get in trouble with something quite so powerful as the Dylan enterprises.

And next to that, we should put a poem not set to music, one that aspires to literature. To lean over backwards and be generous yet parallel, I'll pick one by a living American poet who aspires to literature (but who was, of course, just passed over for the Nobel.) After all, Dylan hadn't won the Nobel until yesterday.

Like Dylan's lyrics, this poem is also under copyright protection, so I'll just give a 14-line excerpt and a link to the remainder. Here goes:

The eyes open to a cry of pulleys,
And spirited from sleep, the astounded soul
Hangs for a moment bodiless and simple
As false dawn.
                     Outside the open window
The morning air is all awash with angels.

    Some are in bed-sheets, some are in blouses,
Some are in smocks: but truly there they are.
Now they are rising together in calm swells
Of halcyon feeling, filling whatever they wear
With the deep joy of their impersonal breathing;

    Now they are flying in place, conveying
The terrible speed of their omnipresence, moving
And staying like white water; and now of a sudden

Read the rest of Richard Wilbur's "Love Calls Us to the Things of This World" at The Poetry Foundation, here.

But perhaps it is more appropriate to look at a poem by someone who has won a Nobel prize for literature. Try these fourteen lines:

Turning and turning in the widening gyre   
The falcon cannot hear the falconer; 
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; 
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world, 
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere   
The ceremony of innocence is drowned; 
The best lack all conviction, while the worst   
Are full of passionate intensity. 

Surely some revelation is at hand; 
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.   
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out   
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi 
Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert   
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,   

Read the rest of "The Second Coming" by Yeats here. (Even if you've departed on a bandwagon already, Yeats is always worth a look. And, indeed, a second look.)

And now, after some meditation on words alone, perhaps it would be appropriate to have an opinion....

* * *

Postscript: A. M. Juster says, "Dylan’s Nobel honors his words for their musicality, accessibility, and ideas. His recognition may help to drag scholars, MFA programs, and literary journals away from their postmodernist tedium and toward a welcome revival of poetry that provokes and delights the public. For that reason alone, as others flame about Dylan’s Nobel don’t think twice – it’s alright." Read the rest here.

Monday, October 10, 2016

Inaugural, redux

Remembering the 2013 challenge to write an inaugural poem from poets Richard Krawiec and Kay Stripling Byer, I rooted around for this poem. I find it curious to contemplate those older thoughts during this campaign, the most--shall we politely say lively?--lively and divisive American election since the campaign of 1828.

If you want to see the comments people made about the poem back in January, 2013, go here.  But below is the text of the original post:



Around five or six o'clock today, writer Richard Krawiec challenged a number of people on facebook to write an inaugural poem--Kathryn Stripling Byer is probably to blame for my inclusion on the list... (Thanks, Kay!) I curled up by the window while snow fell down and drafted this blank verse poem. It opens with images from the Bible--the lowly pot and the potter.


Even a famous man is just a pot
Thrown on the wheel—centered and true, one hopes,
But a pot all the same. So says the book
You use today, on which you swear a vow,
Your fingertips touching the word of God
And your skin prickling with the fingerprints
Of the potter—or nervousness, perhaps.
As pot, you circle round the air, you shine,
Preserving and protecting, defending
This Constitution you swear to uphold,
Words that are wild, sweet apples from the branch
Of freedom, watered with blood of ancestors.
Like an oblation jar, now keep for us
The fruit of that dream nation pilgrims sought
And suffered, all our union marred by sin
Because we were only men and women,
Fearing the white ships at the harbor’s edge,
Fearing the dark shapes moving in the woods,
Fearing and scorning what we did not grasp.
A jar holds summer’s peaches, summer’s sun
As if no time has passed: so hold the dream,
As if both light and shade could be our joy,
As if the past could yet be a blessing,
As if our knowledge came from wrong and right
Twisted together, a tree of knowledge.
So hold the dream, and let us taste of light
In scorning no one for his freeborn thoughts,
Knowing how little we discern, knowing
That we must stand together in this place,
One country given much, among many,
One planet set against the stars and cold:
So hold the dream, and let us taste of light.
 21 January 2013

Thursday, October 06, 2016

Good things

Ashley Norwood Cooper, "The Virgin Mary Paints St. Luke on her iPad"
is at left (look for Mary in a red gown.)
no. 1

Hurrah for another Pushcart Prize poetry nomination! Thanks to Trinacria for nominating "Portrait of the Magi as Three Horses."

no. 2

Franklin Einspruch says: "Perhaps for the first time in history, we are looking at the possibility of a conservative avant-garde." He was talking about visual arts, but it works for writing as well.  (I often think that the way forward is through the tradition.)

no. 3

I'll be speaking at The Frederick Buechner Workshops at Fuller Seminary in Pasadena next year! (And I'm going to Kyoto in 2017....) Feeling sorry for family members who will be doomed to stay home and feed the cats!

no. 4

Tonight my friend and neighbor Ashley Norwood Cooper is talking about "The Virgin Mary Paints St. Luke on her iPad" during the Artists' Walk at at the Church of St. Paul the Apostle near Columbus Circle, NYC!

no. 5

The up side of the Elena Ferrante revelation is that her story strikes a blow against cultural appropriation--a belief that could destroy the arts in our time, if allowed full sway.

Tuesday, October 04, 2016

A beginning, with green sheep...

The Ferrol Sams Award.
Silver Award, Foreword Book of the Year Awards.

"Its themes and the power of its language,
the forceful flow of its storyline
and its characters have earned the right
to a broad national audience." review
I have been busy with children and deadlines and applying for a short fellowship, so here is a little snip from A Death at the White Camellia Orphanage in place of a post I've had no time to write. A snip, a clip from the beginning to a first chapter, instead...

Death comes to White Camellia Orphanage;
A savage laugh, a riddle and reply.

The boy called Pip by his father—who had named him after a boy in a famous book, a child for whom everything had turned out well enough—woke in the dense warmth of an Emanuel County summer at 4:17 a.m., a fact that he learned years later when he became acquainted with clocks because for the rest of his life he would wake at the very same hour, the very same moment of the morning as if his body could never let go of the need to be awake for that minute of the day.  He did not open his eyes.  He did not need to open his eyes.  He knew where he was, the same place he had been for almost a year.  He was on the farm sharecropped by the Hooks family although the land was always called by another man’s name as if to remind the husband and wife that they owned not much more than debt and the clothes on their backs plus a spare change for Sunday and a clutter of ironware and dishes and a few clanking enamel chamber pots.  For the last several years it also had been known as The White Camellia Orphanage or The Cottage because of the doings of Mr. Sam Truetlen, owner of a nearby cotton gin and the far-off Gen’l Notions Store, who had traveled all the way to New Orleans and on to Dallas once upon a time, and there, on the outer edge of the known world, had toured a cottage-style orphanage intended for destitute white children and run by the Klan.  Some years later, Mr. Sam, being a man prone to fits of “projecting,” backed his own orphanage though most of its children still claimed at least one parent on some played-out, ramshackle farm.  Wherever his kind had sunk so desperate and low as to scoop up the red clay to eat, Mr. Sam would arrive on muleback and plod away with one or more children riding pillion, some to stay at The Cottage for a month, some longer. It got so that people for miles around could recognize Daisy Belle, the white mule, and Goshen, the soot-gray one.  As for the name of the orphanage, that was the influence of the Klan, with its Knights and Dragon, its Cyclops and Nighthawk and Kamellia—and Mr. Sam’s tip-of-the-hat to the city of Dallas.  So that was where Pip had been lodged for almost a year, in The White Camellia. 
It was high, hot summer in Emanuel County, Georgia, and not one soul was saved from the day’s blaze or from the night’s smother of warmth; up and down the county, the only sleep was a restless sleep, and near Lexsy, one or two old people woke in a fright because the air was just about too dense to breathe—their trembling hands reaching for funeral-parlor fans printed with a portrait of Christ and some luminous, faintly green sheep—and on some gully-shattered sharecropped place, an infant who had been fighting for air yielded up the ghost on his mother’s naked breast.  Mr. Sam, next door to the cotton gin, returned to bed and dreamed his nightly dream of being weighed in the scales and found wanting.  At The White Camellia Orphanage, the bone-tired children slept without dreaming, all but one, who dreamed about a lost penny.    
When he woke, Pip knew something was akilter.  He did not know more, neither whether the hour felt wrong or right.  There was a faint slippage of coolness on his back where his brother—his half-brother—Otto normally slept.  The kinship bond between them was tangible, such that the children seemed inseparable, a blood brotherhood of commingled beings.  Loss and grief had only made their physical need and ache for each other more clearly manifest.  The musky smell that belonged to the little boy was ebbing away, and Pip could detect only the presence of the two others in the bed and the four across the room.  The brothers always slept together, with a careful space between themselves and their bedmates, an act that demanded they cling to their perches even in sleep to avoid tumbling down into the deep valley of the bed.  Now Pip lay breathing in the scent of near-naked boys and the stink of the chamber pots. These were smells he did not find disagreeable, just as he did not dislike the fumes of kerosene from the lamp or the odor of Miss Versie, unwashed and marked with a faint whiff of blood.  

Where was Otto?