ruminations

Of Ideas and Word Counts

MousyBoyWithGlasses (CC-ASA)Feel Life Poem

I think that every person at every time has only so many words they can spend on an idea before they end up repeating themselves.

A quick example: consider the stereotypical young male bachelor. When he’s single, the number of words he can or will spend on the topic of romantic love probably doesn’t go above 15. When newly smitten, he’ll spend hours to the topic and for any ear willing to hear. Of course that’s an exaggeration, but I think you can infer the point from it.

And this has implications far beyond the amount of love poetry that exists in the world. This relation between ideas (which we could also call topics) and word counts regularly affects what I do here. I can’t even count the number of times I’ve started writing something only to find that I had only a few paragraphs of stuff worth writing on it.

Sometimes, I can’t even write more than a sentence. And I’d like to say that this means that those topic go on some shelf to wait for me to have more to say about them. Usually they do. Sometimes they don’t.

Sometimes, for lack of a better idea, I feel the need to pad an idea I don’t have much to say about. To pull and prod it and hope that suddenly I’ll find something new to say. I rarely do. But somehow I find my way to rather imaginary line of “long enough”–I’d estimate that for this space it’s about seven paragraphs, though it really depends.

Given how much poking and prodding I have to do to my ideas to get them to that relatively short length, I can’t imagine what anyone ever manages to write a whole book about. I’d estimate that a days writing here is less than a page in an average book, and I’m sure that a year of this somewhat-random writing wouldn’t make a very coherent book.

One of the things I’ve always liked about poetry is that it’s the purest distillation of ideas you find almost anywhere. The word count of most poems is even less than my average word count here, but done well it easily eclipses what I do in terms of depth and thoughtfulness.

Poetry and books feel like the opposite ends of the spectrum to me. A poem–at least the kind I like–is as succinct as it possibly can be. A good book, on the other hand, is extremely verbose. Exhaustion of it’s topic is, generally, the goal.

For now, I’ll probably stay where I am. In the middle of these two more common forms. Not sure which, if either, would better fit my style than what I’m doing right now.

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OPW, poetry

OPW: “The Future”

Today on Other People’s Words, a beautiful poem by Wesley McNair called “The Future.”

On the afternoon talk shows of America
the guests have suffered life’s sorrows
long enough. All they require now
is the opportunity for closure,
to put the whole thing behind them
and get on with their lives. That their lives,
in fact, are getting on with them even
as they announce their requirement
is written on the faces of the younger ones
wrinkling their brows, and the skin
of their elders collecting just under their
set chins. It’s not easy to escape the past,
but who wouldn’t want to live in a future
where the worst has already happened
and Americans can finally relax after daring
to demand a different way? For the rest of us,
the future, barring variations, turns out
to be not so different from the present
where we have always lived—the same
struggle of wishes and losses, and hope,
that old lieutenant, picking us up
every so often to dust us off and adjust
our helmets. Adjustment, for that matter,
may be the one lesson hope has to give,
serving us best when we begin to find
what we didn’t know we wanted in what
the future brings. Nobody would have asked
for the ice storm that takes down trees
and knocks the power out, leaving nothing
but two buckets of snow melting
on the wood stove and candlelight so weak,
the old man sitting at the kitchen table
can hardly see to play cards. Yet how else
but by the old woman’s laughter
when he mistakes a jack for a queen
would he look at her face in the half-light as if
for the first time while the kitchen around them
and the very cards he holds in his hands
disappear? In the deep moment of his looking
and her looking back, there is no future,
only right now, all, anyway, each one of us
has ever had, and all the two of them,
sitting together in the dark among the cracked
notes of the snow thawing beside them
on the stove, right now will ever need.

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OPW, poetry

OPW: The Poets’ Annual Indigence Report

“The Poets’ Annual Indigence Report” is among the most confounding William Stafford poems that I have ever found. I am honestly unable to understand or explain exactly what it is supposed to mean, but I’m still awed by the beauty of the phrases.

The most salient meaning I have found (thank you Google) that it is about intellectualism in the 1950s. I can find possible allusions to this in the poem, but I don’t think that’s an adequate explanation. If you think you can explain it, or want to try, please let me know.

Tonight beyond the determined moon,
aloft with nothing left that is voluntary
for delight, everything uttering hydrogen,
your thinkers are mincing along through a hail of contingencies,

While we all–floating though we are, lonesome though we are,
lost in hydrogen–we live by seems things:
when things just are, then something else
will be doing the living.

Doing is not enough; being is not enough;
knowing is far from enough. So we clump around, putting
feet on the dazzle floor, awaiting the real schedule
by celebrating the dazzle schedule.

And, whatever is happening, we are here;
a lurch or a god has brought us together.
We do our jobs–listening in fear
in endless, friendless, Jesus-may-happen fashion.

Our shadows ride over the grass, your shadows, ours: –
Rich men, wise men, be our contemporaries.

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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.

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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
upon

a red wheel
barrow

glazed with rain
water

beside the white
chickens.

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.

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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.

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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.

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