OPW, poetry

OPW: “A Primer on the Daily Round”

This poem, by Howard Nemerov, was too interesting not to share. I don’t think it needs much introduction, you’ll easily figure out what it was that struck me.

A peels an apple, while B kneels to God,
C telephones to D, who has a hand
On E’s knee, F coughs, G turns up the sod
For H’s grave, I do not understand
But J is bringing one clay pigeon down
While K brings down a nightstick on L’s head,
And M takes mustard, N drives into town,
O goes to bed with P, and Q drops dead,
R lies to S, but happens to be heard
By T, who tells U not to fire V
For having to give W the word
That X is now deceiving Y with Z,
Who happens just now to remember A
Peeling an apple somewhere far away.


OPW: Ray Bardbury’s Byzantium

There are few writings that so purely distill a twentieth-century American summer as Ray Bradbury’s Dandelion Wine. And though I considered finding a better except for a warm summer day, I settled for the poem that Bradbury offered in writing the introduction to the new edition in 1974. The poem, entitled “Byzantium I Come Not From”, is not so good as the novel, but it has grown on me since I first encountered it.

Byzantium, I come not from,
But from another time and place
Whose race was simple, tried and true;
As boy
I dropped me forth in Illinois.
A name with neither love nor grace
Was Waukegan, there I came from
And not, good friends, Byzantium.
And yet in looking back I see
From topmost part of farthest tree
A land as bright, beloved and blue
As any Yeats found to be true.
So we grew up with mythic dead
To spoon upon midwestern bread
And spread old gods’ bright marmalade
To slake in peanut-butter shade,
Pretending there beneath our sky
That it was Aphrodite’s thigh…
While by the porch-rail calm and bold
His words pure wisdom, stare pure gold
My grandfather, a myth indeed,
Did all of Plato supersede
While Grandmama in rockingchair
Sewed up the raveled sleeve of care
Crocheted cool snowflakes rare and bright
To winter us on summer night.
And uncles, gathered with their smokes
Emitted wisdoms masked as jokes,
And aunts as wise as Delphic maids
Dispensed prophetic lemonades
To boys knelt there as acolytes
To Grecian porch on summer nights;
Then went to bed, there to repent
The evils of the innocent;
The gnat-sins sizzling in their ears
Said, through the nights and through the years
Not Illinois nor Waukegan
But blither sky and blither sun.
Though mediocre all our Fates
And Mayor not as bright as Yeats
Yet still we knew ourselves. The sun?

big ideas, poetry

In Praise of Simplicity

I think that one of greatest poems ever written is “The Red Wheelbarrow” by William Carlos Williams. You’d be hard pressed to find something that said so much with so little:

so much depends

a red wheel

glazed with rain

beside the white

The image is stark and clear, and though we may not know what the “so much” is that depends upon this beautiful image, it’s better that we’re left to guess.

I like to assume that “so much” is the fate of the known world. That all the things that I and you hold dear are at risk. Not in the absolute way that they may be threatened from an angry neighbor or a nuclear bomb, but something about our existence would be the less if this image didn’t happen. If this instant of reality wasn’t captured in these words.

But this poem isn’t great just because of its length and simplicity of structure. Surely poems have been written with fewer letters, or with a less delineated structure. This is about the density of the images and their meaning.

And don’t think that this is only about poems. I would contend that some of the greatest books, movies, and paintings are also starkly simple. The Little Prince or any Dr. Seuss is simple. But in their simplicity there is also something crucial. Saint Exupery’s story is brimming given its length. Dr. Seuss is fun, but he’s also teaching us something. Always teaching us something we really should know.

Movies. Too many people are too concerned with displaying the weakness of men, their personal struggles and the deeper meaning of those struggles. I’m not saying these aren’t worthy and sometimes interesting quests, but the measure of a films worth should not be the number of meanings that we can only guess at. David Lynch makes interesting movies, but they are not fun nor joyful.

Sometimes what we need is simple easy joy. Sometimes (maybe a lot) we need to put down The Brothers Karamazov and look for a time at a red wheel barrow glazed with rain water and just, for a time, soak in the glow of simplicity.

OPW, poetry

Other People’s Words: “The Calf Path”

This poem by Sam Walter Foss was just far too interesting not to keep around for myself and to share with others. Entitled “The Calf Path,” it offers a fun story while quietly urging us to always question conventional wisdom.

One day thru the primeval wood
A calf walked home, as good calves should;
But made a trail, all bent askew,
A crooked trail, as all calves do.
Since then 300 years have fled,
And I infer the calf is dead.
But still, he left behind his trail
And thereby hangs my mortal tale.

The trail was taken up next day
By a lone dog that passed that way.
And then, a wise bell weathered sheep
Pursued the trail, o’er vale and steep,
And drew the flocks behind him too
As good bell weathers always do.
And from that day, o’er hill and glade
Thru those old woods, a path was made.

And many men wound in and out,
And dodged, and turned, and bent about,
And uttered words of righteous wrath
Because ’twas such a crooked path,
But still they followed, do not laugh,
The first migrations of that calf.
And thru the winding woods they stalked
Because he wobbled when he walked.

This forest path became a lane
That bent, and turned, and turned again.
This crooked lane became a road
Where many a poor horse with his load
Toiled on beneath the burning sun
And traveled some three miles in one.
And thus a century and a half
They trod the footsteps of that calf.

The years passed on in swiftness fleet,
The road became a village street.
And this, before men were aware,
A city’s crowded thoroughfare.
And soon the central street was this
Of a renowned metropolis.
And men, two centuries and a half
Trod the footsteps of that calf.

Each day a 100 thousand route
Followed the zig-zag calf about,
And o’er his crooked journey went
The traffic of a continent.
A 100 thousand men were led
By one calf, near three centuries dead.
They followed still his crooked way
And lost 100 years per day.
For this such reverence is lent
To well establish precedent.

A moral lesson this might teach
Were I ordained , and called to preach.
For men are prone to go it blind
Along the calf paths of the mind,
And work away from sun to sun
To do what other men have done.
They follow in the beaten track,
And out, and in, and forth, and back,
And still their devious course pursue
To keep the paths that others do.

They keep the paths a sacred groove
Along which all their lives they move.
But how the wise old wood gods laugh
Who saw that first primeval calf.
Ah, many things this tale might teach,
But I am not ordained to preach.

personal, poetry

Meeting William Stafford

This is not about the time that I met the late and great poet William Stafford. Though we shared six years on this earth, I never got that chance. This is rather about the metaphorical meeting that great poetry can convince you you have had.

There are poems that you read which resonate. About which you say, “Yes, that’s exactly how I feel, or at least how I’d like to.” The first time this happened to me though, I was shocked.

My high school education included too much average poetry and too little that resonated with me, if anyone. We read Dickinson too early to understand her, and Plath too briefly to care. We surely read others, but they never stuck.

I became convinced that I hated poetry. It’s not that I hated the words, I hated the pressure that my education put on the form and the analysis.

First I learned how to write sonnets. Not that I would ever write a sonnet, but someone thought I should know how to.

And then I was forced to pull meaning out of Shakespeare. Or at least that’s what it felt like. Really we were simply looking for tricks that reinforced the poem’s meaning. But I was never told, so I became convinced that there was to be meaning attached to each slant rhyme, each sibilance, and god forbid, the hundreds of metaphors. This killed any innate love for poetry I may have ever had.

After that, I hated the form.

With time a few broke through. William Carlos Williams famous “so much depends…” got me once. Bukowoski, beaten over my head by a friend, seemed good enough.

William Stafford, though, he’s the one that snuck up on me. Surfing the internets [sic] one day I found this:

‘Any Morning’

Just lying on the couch and being happy.
Only humming a little, the quiet sound in the head.
Trouble is busy elsewhere at the moment, it has
so much to do in the world.

People who might judge are mostly asleep; they can’t
monitor you all the time, and sometimes they forget.
When dawn flows over the hedge you can
get up and act busy.

Little corners like this, pieces of Heaven
left lying around, can be picked up and saved.
People won’t even see that you have them,
they are so light and easy to hide.

Later in the day you can act like the others.
You can shake your head. You can frown.

I couldn’t look away. The poem was so simple, honest, and full of the simple joy of simple moments. And it made me do one thing nothing I’d not done in some long time: seek out a book of poems.

And there I found another:

Love in the Country

We live like this: no one but
some of the owls awake, and of them
only near ones really awake.

In the rain yesterday, puddles
on the walk to the barn sounded their
quick little drinks.

The edge of the haymow, all
soaked in moonlight,
dreams out there like silver music.

Are there farms like this where
no one likes to live?
And the sky going everywhere?

While the earth breaks the soft horizon
eastward, we study how to deserve
what has already been given us.

Again, same effect. Transfixed. The last stanza especially.

“…we study how to deserve/ what has already been given us.” I must have read it over at least ten times. I considered how much I truly owed the world. How much I’d been given, how much I had left to give.

I haven’t read any more Stafford recently, but these have kept me. Perhaps I should look for more, I’ve waited long enough.

In any case, there’s the story of how I met William Stafford. And how he helped me love poetry. And better understand the world. And my place within it.