Tuesday, March 28, 2017

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.

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