Tuesday, March 28, 2017

March 28: Lost Keys, Mark Strand, "The Garden"

I have lost my keys.  Well, actually, I have misplaced my keys.  They are not in my normal coat pocket.  They are not in my house or my car.  Therefore, I believe that I have left them on my desk at work.  At least, that is what I'm hoping.

My wife sometimes calls me the absent-minded professor.  I have a habit of losing things temporarily.  I get distracted, walk off, forget.  When I was a child, I was highly unfocused.  I bounced from reading to writing to wanting to digging up a dinosaur in the backyard to finding a dirty magazine under my brother's mattress.

That may sound like ADHD.  I have never been diagnosed.  My mother's solution for my erratic attention was making me take piano lessons.  It worked.  I was able to practice for extended periods of time at the keyboard.  And that ability to concentrate spilled over into other areas of my life.

However, I still get distracted, still misplace things.

Poetry helps Saint Marty focus, as well.

The Garden

by:  Mark Strand

          for Robert Penn Warren

It shines in the garden,
in the white foliage of the chestnut tree,   
in the brim of my father’s hat
as he walks on the gravel.

In the garden suspended in time   
my mother sits in a redwood chair:   
light fills the sky,
the folds of her dress,
the roses tangled beside her.

And when my father bends
to whisper in her ear,
when they rise to leave
and the swallows dart
and the moon and stars
have drifted off together, it shines.

Even as you lean over this page,   
late and alone, it shines: even now   
in the moment before it disappears.

March 28: Wild Bob, Poetic Equations, Dickinson's Advice

There was another long silence, with the colonel dying and dying, drowning where he stood.  And then he dried out wetly, "It's me, boys!  It's Wild Bob!"  That is what he had always wanted his troops to call him:  "Wild Bob."

None of the people who could hear him were actually from his regiment, except for Roland Weary, and Weary wasn't listening.  All Weary could think of was the agony in his own feet.

But the colonel imagined that he was addressing his beloved troops for the last time, and he told them that they had nothing to be ashamed of, that there were dead Germans all over the battlefield who wished to God that they had never heard of the Four-fifty-first.  He said that after the war he was going to have a regimental reunion in his home town, which was Cody, Wyoming.  He was going to barbecue whole steers.

He said all the while staring into Billy's eyes.  He made the inside of poor Billy's skull echo with balderdash.  "God be with you, boys!: he said, and that echoed and echoed.  And then he said, "If you're ever in Cody, Wyoming, just ask for Wild Bob!"

I was there.  So was my old war buddy, Bernard V. O'Hare.

This passage is a strange combination of fiction and fact.  Billy Pilgrim is there.  Roland Weary is there.  Wild Bob is there.  And so is Vonnegut and his war buddy, Bernard.  That means that at least part of this passage is fact.  Wild Bob probably was at this railroad yard, calling out, "God be with you boys!"  Vonnegut heard him, decided to put him in his book about the war.

In anything I write, there is always a measure of truth.  Poetry is all about getting to the heart of an experience.  I have written poems about diabetes and adultery, mental illness and spiritual crisis.  There's an inclination for readers of poetry to automatically assume that a poem is 100% true.  The equations in most people's heads go something like this:

Speaker in Poem = Poet

Therefore, if

Speaker in Poem is cutting himself


Poet is a cutter

All of those statements may be true.  The poet may be writing from personal experience.  Or, the poet's wife may be a cutter.  Or daughter.  Or son.  Or sister.  There is real truth, and there is poetic truth.  Walt Whitman probably did take the Brooklyn ferry home from Manhattan, but he may not have.  Robert Frost may have stopped by some woods on a winter night, or he may not have.  Dickinson probably heard a fly buzz at some point in her life.

It's all a matter of taking real experience (a ferry ride, an insect on a windowsill, a horse-drawn sleigh ride) and transforming it into universal experience.  That's the poet's job.  At least, that's my job as a poet.  I want to my readers to recognize themselves.  So, I guess that I would prefer the poetic equations to go something like this:

Speaker in Poem = Reader of Poem

Therefore, if 

Speaker in Poem is cutting himself


Reader of Poem understands the experience of cutting

So, if I write a poem about having an alcoholic father, that doesn't mean my father is or was an alcoholic.  Likewise, if I write a poem about seeing my father beat my mother, that doesn't mean that I was raised in a house filled with domestic violence.  I am telling all the truth, but I am following Emily Dickinson's advice:  I am telling it slant.  Just like Kurt Vonnegut.

Saint Marty is thankful tonight for the truth of a warm late March evening.

Monday, March 27, 2017

March 27: Laureate Without a Plan, Poet of the Week, Mark Strand, "Eating Poetry"

Mark Strand was named U. S. Poet Laureate in 1990, and, like Ted Kooser from last week, I've forgotten how much I love Mark Strand's work.  So, he is the Poet of the Week.

Ever since being named Poet Laureate of the U. P., I've felt like I should be doing something poetic every day.  Standing on a street corner, reading Walt Whitman.  Picking random names out of the phone book and sending out postcards with poems on them.  I have scheduled a few readings and a year-long poetry workshop series, but I'm still finding my footing.

Saint Marty is a laureate without a plan right now.

Eating Poetry

by:  Mark Strand

Ink runs from the corners of my mouth.
There is no happiness like mine.
I have been eating poetry.

The librarian does not believe what she sees.
Her eyes are sad
and she walks with her hands in her dress.

The poems are gone.
The light is dim.
The dogs are on the basement stairs and coming up.

Their eyeballs roll,
their blond legs burn like brush.
The poor librarian begins to stamp her feet and weep.

She does not understand.
When I get on my knees and lick her hand,
she screams.

I am a new man.
I snarl at her and bark.
I romp with joy in the bookish dark.

March 28: Coughed and Coughed, Stranger in a Strange Land, Same Worries

The Germans sorted out the prisoners according to rank.  They put sergeants with sergeants, majors with majors, and so on.  A squad of full colonels was halted near Billy.  One of them had double pneumonia.  He had a high fever and vertigo.  As the railroad yard dipped and swooped around the colonel, he tried to hold himself steady by staring into Billy's eyes.

The colonel coughed and coughed, and then he said to Billy, "You one of my boys?"  This was a man who had lost an entire regiment, about forty-five hundred men--a lot of them children, actually.  Billy didn't reply.  The question made no sense.

"What was your outfit?" said the colonel.  He coughed and coughed.  Every time he inhaled his lungs rattled like greasy paper bags.

Billy couldn't remember the outfit he was from.

"You from the Four-fifty-first?"

"Four-fifty-first what?" said Billy.

There was a silence.  "Infantry regiment," said the colonel at last.

"Oh," said Billy Pilgrim.

Billy really is a stranger in a strange land.  He was never prepared to be in combat, and he certainly isn't prepared to be a prisoner of war.  He was an aide to a chaplain.  I don't think he ever expected to see a German soldier, let alone be captured by some.  Billy literally doesn't know how to respond to the colonel's questions. 

I have been feeling a little stranger-in-a-strange-land myself today.  Woke up feeling incredibly sad for some reason.  That mood followed me for most of the morning.  I simply couldn't shake it.  I went to bed last night worrying about bills.  Woke up with the same worries.  Walked around for about six hours, wondering where my life had gone wrong.  Can't pay bills.  Can't afford vacations.  Didn't even have enough money to buy something caffeinated to drag me out of the doldrums this a.m.

It is now about five o'clock in the afternoon, and my mood has shifted somewhat.  I have a class to teach in about an hour, but most of it will be spent watching and discussing Michael Moore's documentary Sicko.  An easy night.  Perhaps that is what has buoyed my spirits.  Plus I really like these students a lot.  They make teaching writing for three hours on a Monday night almost fun.

So, I am not quite so melancholy now.  Just had dinner.  Delicious.  Might have an Oatmeal Cream Pie for dessert.  Delicious again.  And then, Michael Moore railing against America's health care system.  Great fun.

Saint Marty is thankful for the food he ate tonight.  Amen.