Thursday, May 23, 2019

Stories That Could Be True

One of my favorite poets is William Stafford. In 1977, he published a volume of new and collected poems entitle Stories That Could Be True, a title which I have become fond of over the years for reasons I'm sure he would not have anticipated. Because I've reached the point in my life where that title strikes me as being something of an oxymoron. I've come to understand that all stories are essentially fictions, even and perhaps especially when they are presented as—or intended by their narrators to be taken as—"true stories."

To tell a story is essentially to make a selection of events and present them in a sequence. It would not be desirable, even if it were possible, for any storyteller to include every detail in narrating an event. When I woke up this morning from my dream, what had I been dreaming about? Something about a basketball game? Or walking in the rain in the park? Both at the same time? No sooner had eyes opened than the dream was beginning to fade. I could attempt to recreate it now, but to do so I'd have to invent details that I've already lost, and those details of course not be "true."

The crow cawing outside that woke me up, did he caw once? twice? repeatedly? Was there in fact a crow there at all, or did I just put that in for verisimilitude? Was it perhaps a female crow? How would I know? (Or did I perhaps imagine or make up the whole thing about the crow?)

Did I raise my hand to my face before I took off the covers? Did I scratch my nose? On which side? With which finger? Did I use my right hand or my left to toss the covers aside? Which foot hit the floor first? Was I still lying down when the foot hit the floor, or had I already sat up. When I sat up—if I sat up—was there a cramp in my leg? Which leg? Which muscle? And how painful was it? How would I be able to quantify that pain in a way that would be "true."

You see the problem. Just to tell the story of getting up this morning, if I were to try to capture every detail, would take me all day, and I would not even get to the part about making breakfast. much less eating it. And inevitably I'd get some of it wrong, or leave some of it out. There's information I don't have access to. There's stuff I've forgotten. There's other material I might choose to leave out because it either seems extraneous to the story or it reflects on me personally in a way that I would prefer not to share. That dream, for example, might have been about something else, something potentially embarrassing or compromising that I might not want you to know about. It was only a dream, I know, but still.

Then there's my writerly desire to craft the story in a way that makes for good reading or good listening. I might want to select my details in order to reinforce a particular narrative arc. I might want the language to move in a certain way. And that leads us to yet another fundamental and inescapable reality in storytelling: stories are made up of words. Words are sequences of sounds that line up single file, one word after another. There's simply no way that words can accurately re-create the simultaneous multidimensionality of lived experience. As Stephen Dobyns, no slouch of a poet or storyteller himself, has observed

The main problem with turning the world into language is that it's, well, impossible. The word is always less than the thing that it wants to represent. No matter how complicated, exact, true, and beautiful the language may become, it is always a diminishment of the reality described.

I had a colleague at a school where I used to teach who considered himself to be an evangelist for what he called objectivity. He labored mightily to impress upon his students the need to stick to facts when they were writing. He strove to be "objective" himself when responding to student writing, and was often highly and publicly critical of other teachers in the department—myself being one of them—he considered to be overly encouraging of subjectivity in student work and overly subjective in their evaluation of it.

I didn't agree with him then. Twenty years later, I still don't agree with him, and I think I understand more clearly why. The fact of the matter is, we are awash in subjectivity all day, every day, all the time. As human beings, we make sense of the world by telling ourselves stories. That's not necessarily a bad thing, it's just the way it is.

The problems arise when we lose sight of the fact that those stories are, almost by definition, fabrications. Over time and many repetitions, we become so invested in the stories we tell that we come to believe them, and to act, and think, as if they were true. This is the case with almost every religion. It's the case with local and national politics, where people's attachment to their own particular versions of the stories they believe to be true leads to the kind of toxic vituperation that seems to be dominating the news cycle not just here in the United States, but in Britain, Italy, Hungary, China, India, the Phillipines... just about everywhere.

Even at family gatherings on holidays, with family and friends, it's easy to forget that the stories we tell one another are merely today's version of what we think happened, or what we remember, or what we think will make people laugh.

This last weekend I was at Santa Sabina for a writing retreat run by William Stafford's son Kim, who is poet-laureate of the state of Oregon himself. He's a terrific writer and master storyteller, and he gave those of us at the conference many short writing prompts by way of encouraging us to connect with our own stories. One of the prompts had to do with recalling a time when you did something you weren't supposed to do. (This is a very good writing prompt, one that I have used—in a slightly different way—with great success over the years with students at all levels from elementary school through adulthood.)

So, I took a shot at it, and this is the poem that I came up with:


Walking home from school I stopped at the five and dime
for a Milky Way. On the way to the register at the back
of the store my eye was caught by a glint of metallic red light
from the tray on the counter to my left, a display of gyroscopes
with a diagram showing how it worked: you would wind
the twine around the stem, place the foot of the device
on a flat surface, and, holding the top steady with your finger,
yank the string, and then the little red wheel in the middle
would spin and the gyroscope would stand by itself, freed
for the moment from the constraints of gravity. Seeing that
Mr. Harvey was busy ringing up an old lady in a red dress,
I snatched a gyroscope and slipped it into my bookbag.
At home, I sat in my room watching the gyroscope
spin and spin, a thing of wonder and beauty, until suddenly
my mother walked in. Where did you get that? she said.
When I told her, she marched me out to the car, drove me
to the store, and made me give it back and apologize.
I told Mr. Harvey I was sorry, even though it was a lie.

If you were to ask me if this were a true story, I'd say yes. But in the writing of it I found myself making a lot of strategic decisions that were in essence falsifications.  For example, the name of the store was (I think) The Variety Shop, and it wasn't exactly a five and dime store. But for the sake of compression in the story I didn't want to get into all of that, so I just used the generic term "five and dime." (A term which also serves to set the story in the not-very-recent past.)

I don't in fact remember if it was a Milky Way I was after; it probably was not, since I got my candy bars, when I got them, not at the Variety Shop, but at the Gristede's market down the street. I included the Milky Way by way of trying to establish the age (and cupidity) of my main character, which is to say, a younger, somewhat fictionalized version of myself, and also because I just like sound of the syllables. (It could have been a Hershey Bar or a Three Musketeers, right?) The part about stealing a gyroscope is certainly true, but all of the details about their placement in the store and the diagram are invented, as are Mr. Harvey (I have no idea what the name of the store owner was), the old lady, and her red dress. The cash register was by the front door, not in the back. The conversation with my mother is invented as well. She did see me with the gyroscope, and she did make me take it back, but that's about all I remember, and in the absence of memory we fall back upon imagination.

The last line is a particularly egregious case of calculated misrepresentation. I put it in there because I wanted to make a point about my conflicted relationship as a child with parental and ethical expectations (which I would certainly not have been aware of as a child but am certainly aware of now), and also because I wanted the poem to have a punch line at the end. I was hoping, when I read it out loud, that people would laugh.

And they did, although I had, and have, mixed feelings about that, for reasons that should be clear at this point, because the writing of that poem gave rise to the writing of this post. I was very aware in drafting the poem of the somewhat treacherous ground I was traversing as I tried to be true to the experience I had as a child but also true to my sense of what might make for a dramatically effective poem. I was also ruefully aware, both in the writing and in the aftermath of it, of the essentially glibness and shallowness of the poem, as compared to the power and depth of many of the poems that I most admire, and many of the poems that my colleagues read the same night I read this one.

I would say that "Balance" as a poem succeeds in terms of its own limited ambitions. It's smooth. It's deft. It's clear. It meets the requirements of the prompt. And it successfully conveys some elements of the truth. It presents itself, like all other stories, as a story that could be true. But, like all other stories, it less true that it purports to be.

Friday, March 29, 2019

Is it Necessary?

We all have a limited number of hours on this planet. If we are going to dedicate ourselves during those hours to some particular endeavor, whether it be writing or art or music or public service or the accumulation of wealth, it would behoove us to spend that time doing work that needs to be done, that creates value in our own lives and, ideally, in the lives of those around us.

One of the questions that keeps recurring in my life as a writer has to do with what might be called gravity, or weight, or perhaps necessity. While I certainly respect writers who have taken it upon themselves to do the daunting and at times discouraging work of trying to get the words right, to construct poems which are thoughtful and well-crafted, often of late I have found myself looking for something more elusive.

A large proportion of the poems and stories and essays I read—and, alas, perhaps an even greater proportion of the ones I write—might be described as being entertaining or amusing.  But as a reader and as a writer I am always hoping to find my way toward a poem which is not merely artful or clever or funny or apt, but in some sense essential.

Last week I went to a poetry reading sponsored by the Marin Poetry Center at the Falkirk Cultural Center in San Rafael. The featured poets were Troy Jollimore, whom I had head of before, and Lynn Emanual, whom I had not. Jollimore read first, and I enjoyed his poems, although they seemed mostly to be the kind of poems that would come across better on paper. Lynn Emanual's poems, on the other hand, had a dramatic quality to them, and as she read them the words seemed to embody a deep authority and to convey an immediacy and sense of seriousness of purpose that I found to be very impressive. The poems felt, well, necessary. You could sense that they had been important for her to write, and it felt, at least in that moment, like it was important that I had gotten to hear them.

I wound up buying a copy of her New and Selected Poems, called The Nerve of It, and I spent the most of the next day reading and re-reading her poems. One of the ones I like the best—which she had read the previous night—was this one:

The Dig

Beyond the dark souks of the old city, beyond the Dome of the Rock
gray and humped and haunted, beyond the eyes of the men at the café
where they drink their thimblesful of hot tea, beyond the valley
with its scar of naked pipe, the perfect geometrical arcs of irrigation,
and someone incising a dark furrow in a field, some plowman's black
gutter opening through the green, she is waist deep in this open grave,
staring at the delicate puzzle of my feet. Beyond her, in the shadow
of Tel el-Hisi, daubing and dampening the earth, another woman finds
the faint brickwork of a floor spidering the dust, on the hearth's
wedge-shaped arc of shadow, a scattering of charred millet.
Nothing else for miles. Nothing but this bluff of ruin,
one decapitated tower, one "window" staved into the brick,
the bouganvillea crawling across a wall dragging its bloody rags.
She is standing here thinking she cannot bear the way this foot—
my foot—wants to step out of the earth.  I don't care. I am using her
to leave the grave. And so we go on. We go on until we cannot go on
deepening my grave, and the trowel hits stone and I lie staring
while she makes the earth recede, reaches in and pulls me out,
my jaw wired shut by roots, my skull so full of dirt that suddenly
the intricate sutures come loose and, in her hands, the whole head opens.
In the shallow setting where I lay is the small triangular sail
of a scapula, the ribs like the grill of a car. She bones me like a fish.
She lays the little pieces, the puzzling odds and ends, into the dishes
of shellac and formalin. One carpal still wears the faint blue
stain of a ring. Wearily, I lay my reassembled head,
sutures rich with glue, against the wall of a filled beaker.
A fine sweat of bubbles on my chin. All night, through the window
of my jar, I watch her mend with glue and wire, the shallow
saucer of my pelvis. We are nothing. Earth staring at earth.

I'll resist the temptation to do a detailed line-by-line analysis of this poem, because I know from my own readings that such analyses can be tedious to read even when they are thoughtful and well-written. But let me just say a couple of things.

First of all, there's the sheer audacity of the piece, the daring leap of the imagination that begins in line fourteen, when it becomes clear that the voice in the poem is that of the woman whose body is being excavated. Then there's the surprising twist that at least in her own mind she's the one in charge of this operation: she is using the archaeologist as the instrument of her resurrection, watching with approval as the broken pieces of her body are being reassembled and mended. Finally, there are the startling last two sentences, which shift the point of view in such a way as to open up the poem vertiginously.  Suddenly, it's not "I," it's "we." That "we" asserts the identification not only of the digger and the dug, but of the writer and the reader, and of all of us. We are nothing. Earth staring at earth.

And that, my friends, is of course the simple truth of the matter, even though it's a truth most of us manage to keep out of the range of our vision as we go about our daily routines, as if we had all the time in the world, as if we were in the world but not of it.

I can count on the fingers of one hand the people I know, children or adults, who regularly read poetry on their own. And most of those people are themselves writers. I would venture to guess that if you were to ask the average person why they don't read poetry, they'd say something like "I can't understand it," or "I don't have time," or "Poetry doesn't do anything for me."

William Carlos Williams famously observed—in a poem—that "It is difficult to get the news from poems yet men die miserably every day for lack of what is found there." If there's one necessary function that poetry can serve, for those who do choose to engage with it—it is to retrieve to our consciousness the simple truths that we so easily lose sight of. And that's what makes this poem so powerful to me.

I'll close with the last sentence of "Like God," the last poem in The Nerve of It, which suggests yet another simple truth about the unspoken contract between writer and reader:

did not choose to be in the story of the
matron whose bosom is like the prow
of a ship and who is launched toward
lunch at the Hotel Pierre, or even the
story of the dog-on-a-leash, even though
this is now your story: the story of the
the-dark-road described hurriedly by
someone sitting at the tavern so you could
discover it, although you knew all along
the road would be there, you, who have
been hovering above this page, holding
the book in your hands, like God, reading.

Saturday, March 16, 2019


W. S. Merwin passed away this week, dying peacefully in his sleep at the age of 91.

I have on many occasions in the past had things to say on this blog about Merwin. (If you'd like to take a moment to review them, you can just type "Merwin" in the search bar at the top of the page.) Merwin was an outsized presence in my life. Even though I never met him personally, I saw him read on several occasions, and as a writer and as a human being he was an inspiration and a mentor to me. He was not only a highly original and deeply resonant writer, but he was as well the model of a human being who devoted all of the energies of his life to doing good in and for this world. He spent the last twenty years of his life on the island of Maui doing the work of restoration: taking land that had been stripped and used up for sugar plantations and painstakingly re-introducing native Hawaiian plants to heal the land. That work is documented on the web site of the nonprofit foundation he created to support this work, the Merwin Conservancy. He was a committed and eloquent spokesman for a view of the world which is under siege every day by politicians and businessmen and me-firsters of every stripe who seem to have lost all sense of shame or perspective. Here he speaks of what is at stake:

I believe that our real superiority as a species is not our intelligence itself but the quality of imagination and compassion (in itself perhaps, one of the blessings of language) that allows us to care about the welfare, suffering, survival of lives far from our own, and not immediately or obviously related to our comforts, our prospects, our acquisitions. Whatever we may call the sympathy that involves us with the fate of victims in war zones half a world away, the sonar torture of whales, the mutilation of women and the tortures of bears in Pakistan, or the last members of a species of rainforest honeycreeper, this regard for life apart from our own is something that, so far as I know, is unique to our species. We can glimpse ancestral forms of it in the family and group behavior of other animals, but its broader emergence is a mark of humanity. It is our talent and we have developed it in our own way. It is something that we cannot altogether account for. But if we do not live up to our gifts they do us no good. And what this gift demands of us constantly is a change of heart. What hope there may be depends upon whether or not we can believe in such possibility.

from the forward to Remains of a Rainbow: Rare Plants and Animals of Hawaii.

Several of Merwin's poems have worked their way into my life in ways that no other writer's poems have ever done. I'll post two of them today. The first is one that I committed to memory many years ago and which is still perhaps the most powerful tribute to intellectual humility (and the power of wonder) that I have ever encountered in print. (Note: the word maoli, used here as a personification, is a Polynesian word that means what is native or natural or true.):

Search Party 

By now I know most of the faces 
that will appear beside me as 
long as there are still images 
I know at last what I would choose 
the next time if there ever was 
a time again I know the days 
that open in the dark like this 
I do not know where Maoli is 

I know the summer surfaces 
of bodies and the tips of voices 
like stars out of their distances 
and where the music turns to noise 
I know the bargains in the news 
rules whole languages formulas 
wisdom that I will never use 
I do not know where Maoli is 

I know whatever one may lose 
somebody will be there who says 
what it will be all right to miss 
and what is verging on excess 
I know the shadows of the house 
routes that lead out to no traces 
many of his empty places 
I do not know where Maoli is 

You that see now with your own eyes 
all that there is as you suppose 
though I could stare through broken glass 
and show you where the morning goes 
though I could follow to their close 
the sparks of an exploding species 
and see where the world ends in ice 
I would not know where Maoli is

The second poem is a kind of answer to the question that faces us on those occasions when we find that the world has failed us: how should we respond? Merwin's answer to that question is indicative of the openhearted wisdom that suffuses all of his writing:


with the night falling we are saying thank you
we are stopping on the bridges to bow from the railings
we are running out of the glass rooms
with our mouths full of food to look at the sky
and say thank you
we are standing by the water thanking it
standing by the windows looking out
in our directions

back from a series of hospitals back from a mugging
after funerals we are saying thank you
after the news of the dead
whether or not we knew them we are saying thank you

over telephones we are saying thank you
in doorways and in the backs of cars and in elevators
remembering wars and the police at the door
and the beatings on the stairs we are saying thank you
in the banks we are saying thank you
in the faces of the officials and the rich
and of all who will never change
we go on saying thank you thank you

with the animals dying around us
taking our feelings we are saying thank you
with the forests falling faster than the minutes
of our lives we are saying thank you
with the words going out like cells of a brain
with the cities growing over us
we are saying thank you faster and faster
with nobody listening we are saying thank you
thank you we are saying and waving
dark though it is

(from The Rain in the Trees, Knopf 1988)

Thursday, February 28, 2019

Scorch Marks

I was at the library last week and found on the shelves an anthology of poems I had heard about but not seen, American Journal: Fifty Poems for our Time, put together by Tracy K. Smith, the current American Poet-Laureate. I thought it was a terrific collection. One poem, I was particularly taken by was a sonnet called "Scorch Marks, " written by Dara Wier, a writer I had not heard of before, even though she is roughly my contemporary and has been a writer and a teacher for as long as I have. I typed it out and pasted it into my commonplace book:

Here's a more readable representation:

Scorch Marks

Whenever we find wide black swaths burned across our paths
We think of you. Our friend the black swan turns to look
At us frequently when we pass by its pond. We see your back
Far away inside the pupils of those we love. We stare
And we stare where we are. That is what we do. It makes us
Look as if we've misplaced our minds or perhaps replaced
Ideas of mind with some new stronger fog. I feel you
Fading and find you falling for that feeling, you staring farther
Into one of the farthest vanishing points in the universe.
We find this alarming. We are losing track of something.
Our friend the black dog watches us carefully as we walk by
The door she guards. The crows look at us in their crooked
Ways. They converse and inverse and walk like the mechanics
Of mystery they are. Who are we to believe what they say?

Then I went online to find out more about Dara Wier. It turns out this poem came from You Good Thing, a book of sonnets that came out in 2013. That interested me, since if you have been following my blog this year you know that I've been putting a lot of time into sonneteering myself of late. So I looked it up and lo and behold our always-surprising local library system had the book. It came in yesterday, and I spent a number of happy hours over the last two days reading and re-reading these poems. A lot of what I most enjoy about them is evident in "Scorch Marks."

First of all, there is Wier's musicality, the way that sequences of words wend and warp and echo one another. ("I feel you fading and find you falling for that feeling...")

Simultaneously she spins out sequences of words that have a forward flow, a fluency, that picks you up and takes you for a ride. ("It makes us look as if we've misplaced our minds or perhaps replaced ideas of mind with some new stronger fog...")

There's the originality of the combinations of words that she comes up with, that at first startle and make you stop and think and then quickly resolve themselves into something that feels not so startling after all, but rather just right. ("We see your back far away inside the pupils of those we love...")

There's tremendous range as well in these poems, in terms of tonality, in terms of theme, in terms of the many highly original strategies of syntax and juxtaposition and repetition of ideas. But there is also a strong sense of unity among them. All of the poems are addressed to a vaguely defined and somewhat amorphous "you," who might, in any particular instance, be a friend, a lover, a mentor, a presence, an absence, a spirit, or some combination of all of the above. ("Whenever we find wide black swaths burned across our paths we think of you...")

And finally, in this particular poem, the crows sealed the deal for me. As you may have noted before, I'm partial to crows myself ("They converse and inverse and walk like the mechanics of mystery they are...")

I'll close by offering the last poem in the book, another example of pretty much all of the qualities I mentioned above:


How a haze of you weighs us down is not strange.
Those of us who don't know where you are go around
Addressing you as though your face were hovering
Before us half out of reach almost as if you were
Teasing or testing our reflexes so this is what you
Are now to inclining ever more fugitive reasonings
Now slipping so deeply into deepest of shadows
Now folding yourself into folds of your choosing
Once a black cloth folded forever once a cloud black
And beautifully asserting once a bucket of ashes now
You are racing or flying so your velocities sway us
Into all keening wavering telegraphic of broken into
Thundering so go you go on as you were into the hills
Into this river leaving us with little to do with our hands.


Thursday, February 7, 2019

Quarter to Twelve

Quarter to Twelve

A strident sun overseeing what might
be desert, what might be sea. Rocks
just here; on the horizon, perhaps, hills.
Something breaking up in the middle
(where it all began, where it always
begins): buckthorn bursting into bloom,
grackles harassing wrens, or maybe
some kind of business with an axe.
Over on the right, a building? A book-
case? A mirror? All of the above?
The whole surrounded by a wall:
contents under pressure. The light
doing its definitive work. The day
nearly over, or just about to begin. 

Process Reflection:

It's been a while since I did a pen-and-ink abstract. Wound up doing this one yesterday. It's small, maybe 4" x 6". As usual I had no idea what it was going to turn out to be as I was doing it. I started in the middle drawing more or less random shapes, and worked my way around, ending with the circular figure in the upper left. I was aware, as I worked, of wanting to break up whatever patterns were emerging as I worked, which is why I went to some horizontals in the lower right and then to some verticals and right angles in the upper right. By the time I got to the upper left all I had left to do was circles, so since it was looking landscapey by that time I decided to do a sun thing.

But I kind of liked the way it came out. And today when I was trying without success to get some traction on a poem, I put that work aside and thought I'd just try to work out from the drawing and see what words showed up. I was conscious of wanting to have the poem have some of the same shiftiness that was present in the picture, as well as some of the same continuity. The title just popped into my mind somewhere in the middle of the third or fourth draft.

Looking at the picture as it will appear here, I notice that it appears a little lumpier than it would if I had taken it with my regular camera than with my iPhone. But you can kind of get the idea of what it looks like.

Thursday, January 31, 2019


I've signed up for a course at a nearby community college. It's a poetry workshop. On the first day the instructor gave to those of us who were there for the first time (only a few of us, in a class of returnees) a writing exercise consisting of a series of eleven prompts, like "Name something you can hold in your hand," "What scares you?" and "Quote a line from a song.")

It was suggested that we might try jotting down quick answers to each of the questions, and then attempt to make a poem out of the raw material that appeared on the page. I've done exercises of this kind before—and asked my students to do them as well—but not one with these particular questions. So this afternoon I gave it a shot. My first draft wound up being something like 16 lines, which was close enough to sonnet length that I figured cutting it back would give me something to work against. Here, FWIW, is the very wet draft:


Pen in hand, she sits at her desk by the window, watching the sun
descend toward the woods behind the house. She is waiting
for the words that might express her heartache, her fear that
the willful disregard for facts she sees in the lives of her friends
and neighbors will only increase in intensity in the coming months
and years, even as the west coast burns, the midwest dries up,
the east coast drowns, home-grown refugees by the millions
take arms against whoever has food or water left to steal.
She recalls her years in Honolulu: once the city of sunshine
and clean air, now choking on traffic, streets awash in homeless
people displaced by entrepreneurs looking for the quick kill.
Wishing she could be invincible, she sits, simmering in onyx anger,
pen poised over the paper, waiting for words. Outside, crows
caw out their warnings. It's not dark yet, but it's getting there.

Process Reflection: The list of questions gave me a word bank to work from, and there were enough different kinds of questions to introduce the same kind of randomness that I sometimes find interesting to work through when I do collages. There's of course a tendency for these elements to pull in different directions. For example, Honolulu would not have shown up in this poem if it wasn't the answer to one of the questions. The challenge was to find a way to have it arrive in a form that fits the emerging narrative, so I had it be the narrator's recollection. The first question had to with owning a large estate, and that provided my frame: from the time I was twelve until I was fifteen I lived on a farm in Hillsdale, New York. So even though Hillsdale and Honolulu are poles apart in any normal geographical or cultural sense, they are both part of my experience. And, as my legions of long-time fans may recall, the existential angst that haunts the poem's narrator is not exactly foreign to me either. It did give me pleasure to tip my hat to Brother Bob, another long-time mentor of sorts, there at the end...

Also, to perhaps belabor the obvious, the poem wound up being a piece of writing about a writer, who inevitably, I suppose, is sort of a stand in for me, in that her concerns as she sits at her desk waiting for the words to come are pretty much the concerns that I have when I sit at my desk waiting for the words to come. The dilemma being that the words, whatever the turn out to be, must necessarily always fall short. I was reading Stephen Dobyns yesterday, his introduction to his second book on craft, Next Word, Better Word, and I think he about nailed it: "The main problem with turning the world into language is that it's, well, impossible. The word is always less than the thing that it wants to represent. No matter how complicated, exact, true, and beautiful the language may become,  it is always a diminishment of the reality described." Or, if you want to go back 160 years or so, Flaubert, in Madame Bovary, famously put it this way:

As if the soul’s fullness didn’t sometimes overflow into the emptiest of metaphors, for no one, ever, can give the exact measure of his needs, his apprehensions, or his sorrows; and human speech is like a cracked cauldron on which we bang out tunes that make bears dance, when we want to move the stars to pity.

PS: Two late emendations: after writing and posting the first version of this poem, I went back and changed the word "invisible," which is the word that came up in the original list, to "invincible," which is close in sound but closer to what turned out to be the controlling idea in this poem. And then I was thinking about the word "olive," which came from the list of questions ("Name a color") but didn't feel right here. So I changed it to "onyx." And tinkered with the line about the crows as well. In short, it's still falling into place.


Thursday, January 24, 2019

American Originality

I've been reading American Originality: Essays on Poetry by Louise Glück, one of the most formidably intelligent and articulate poets writing in America today. In the middle section of the book she includes the introductory essays she wrote for various volumes in the Yale Younger Poets series, for which she was a judge for eight years. One of the writers she introduces is Peter Streckfus, and what she had to say about his work sent me to my computer to see what sort of sampling might be available online. While I was looking, I stumbled on podcast in which Streckfus was interviewing... Louise Glück. I had not heard her speak before, and was very much taken both with what she had to say and with the thoughtful, graceful, self-effacing way in which she said it. I was particularly gratified to hear what she had to say about teaching writing. She talks a little bit about how it happened that she came to be a teacher, despite her own early resistance to the idea, and then about how the teaching wound up, against her expectations, having a salutary effect on her writing. Here's the passage that spoke most directly to me, which occurs at somewhere around the 21 minute mark in the half-hour podcast:
I felt passionate about my students' work... Oftentimes students were not very good, especially at the beginning. And they did write... hopeless poems. But if you could hear how they spoke in class and if they could think critically and if they said surprising things, then there was something in the brain that could be harnessed. And in each person it was different. You tried to sniff out the genius in each person. And maybe someone would come in with a poem completely void of action, or image, but it might be that the person wasn't going to get to those things the usual way. And part of the task was to figure out alternative approaches. Or is there a way to turn that sort of thing into a piece of magic? Over and over and over you're dealing with different kinds of problems, and I learned things I would never have learned just sitting at my desk looking at my white paper...

I think that's an eloquent and accurate a summary of what the role of the teacher in a writing class ought to be like. It's not about a set of rules. It's not about telling students what to do and how to do it. It's about—and I love this formulation—"sniffing out the genius in each person." And if it turns out that someone is trying to write something that doesn't fit in any of the received categories, so much the better; it's an opportunity to invent Something Completely Different.

I also understand and respect what she has to say at the end about how that kind of attentive engagement with student writing can wind up being good not just for the student but for the teacher as well. "Teachers as learners" has been a buzzword for decades now. But what exactly might that look like? Glück provides us with a compelling example.

Thursday, January 17, 2019

The Great Wave

One of the gifts I got from my family for Christmas was a jigsaw puzzle version of Katsushika Hokusai's iconic woodprint the Great Wave of Kanagawa. Of all the works of art that I have seen in my lifetime, it is the one which resonates the most with me, so I was happy to have the chance to spend some time with it each day over the last few weeks, especially since the cold and rain have been keeping me mostly indoors anyway. Took a while to complete the 1000-piece puzzle, and I was convinced at many points along the way that there were pieces missing, but no, I finished it up this morning:

The Great Wave is an image of artistic virtuosity that works both as a dramatic image and as a philosophical allegory of sorts. It's made up of essentially four elements: the sky, which takes up fully half of the picture; the three boats in the foreground, with the oarsmen—more than twenty of them—huddled against the force of the waves; the great wave itself, looming large and about to break over the boats; and—off in the distance, framed by the sky, the boats, and the water— snow-covered Mt. Fuji.

The drama of the image is explicit. It's a bad day on the water; the waves are threatening; the men—presumably fishermen out trying to wrest a living from the water—are in mortal danger. The looming blue wave itself—and its somewhat smaller echo below— is rendered in stylized detail, its myriad little white fingers reaching  out like talons as the wave begins its precipitate descent toward the sailors bowed helplessly against its power. The wave is terrifying, but it is also very beautiful: Hokusai has gone to extreme lengths to render the wave's colorations, including long curling arcs of royal blue to help define the shape of the otherwise nearly jet-black water. Even the sea-spume is rendered, thousands of little white droplets of water and mist pervading the air over the boats, frozen just before the moment of impact.

For me, this picture has always seemed an allegory the human condition. Life is always to some degree a matter of turmoil: work to be done, food to be procured, challenges to be met, dangers to be confronted. The daily vicissitudes of life can be pleasurable, but they can also be painful, and at times overwhelming. The wave is for me the emblem of imminent danger, the reminder that at any given moment failure is possible, and even total destruction not out of the question.

And yet, that's not, as they say, the whole picture. In the midst of turmoil, we are also surrounded, and grounded, by something else, something which is not usually at the forefront of our consciousness but which nevertheless exists and endures. In this picture that presence is represented by Mount Fuji, dwarfed by the wave, occupying only about one twentieth of the overall image. But we can recognize that as a trick of perspective. In reality, of course, Mt. Fuji is larger than the wave by many orders of magnitude. If the perspective were reversed and we were looking at the wave from the summit of Mt. Fuji, the waves would be barely noticeable, and humans in their boats not visible at all.

I see the presence of Mt. Fuji in the picture—Hokusai could just as easily have left it out—as being symbolic of that which is permanent, changeless, and enduring in the world, both in the physical sense (the waves will break and dissipate, the mountain will likely be there forever) and in the spiritual sense (in the midst of turmoil of human life, and even perhaps beyond the life of the body itself, there is nonetheless a locus of centeredness, of stillness, of peace.)

Mt. Fuji can thus be seen as representing a kind of spiritual ideal. Pretty much all of the many forms of Buddhism make reference to the concept of the Buddha nature: the potential we have within us to achieve absolute happiness. If we assume this to be the case, the obvious operational question to ask would be "How do we manifest our Buddha nature? How do we bring it forth?" Each form of Buddhism has its own answer to that question, its own practice. Some Buddhists meditate, some chant, some take vows of poverty, some garden, some write, some retreat from the world, some go into the world to do good works.

Hokusai himself had something to say about the nature of practice. It's one of my favorite passages of any kind in literature. (It's been on the sidebar of this blog since its inception.) I've seen various translations of it, but this is the one that I think is most relevant here.

From the age of six I was in the habit of drawing all kinds of things. Although I had produced numerous designs by my fiftieth year, none of my works done before my seventieth is really worth counting. At the age of seventy-three I have come to understand the true form of animals, insects and fish and the nature of plants and trees. Consequently, by the age of eighty-six I will have made more and more progress, and at ninety I will have got closer to the essence of art. At the age of one hundred I will have reached a magnificent level and at one hundred and ten each dot and each line will be alive. I would like to ask those who outlive me to observe that I have not spoken without reason.

The passage dates from 1833, as Hokusai indicates, he was 73 years old. He lived another 13 years, so he clearly never reached the final pinnacle of artistic excellence as he himself envisioned it. Nor—and this is perhaps not obvious, but crucially important to understanding his point—did he expect to. That's what I love about his last sentence: "I would like to ask those who outlive me to observe that I have not spoken without reason." He knew he wasn't going to live that long. And he knows we know it as well. How long one lives is not what matters. Hokusai became a master of one of the most difficult of artistic mediums* and left an archive of artworks which will continue to inspire appreciation and contemplation for as long as humans walk on this earth. That's perhaps as close to transcendence as any of us might hope to come.

* Special bonus: Here's a fascinating process-analysis video showing the work of a contemporary master of the woodcut.

Thursday, January 10, 2019


A poem is a box, a thing, to put other things in. For safe keeping. (Marianne Boruch)

For the last maybe six months I've been concentrating on writing, poetry mostly. There are always essentially three questions to be worked out in the writing of a poem: where to start, how far to go, and where to end. Ken Ronkowitz, a teacher and writer I admire who lives in New Jersey, maintains a whole bunch of web sites that have to do with writing and education and life. I've had fun with a form he invented, based loosely on the Japanese form of the tanka, which he calls the ronka. The formal rules are simple: five lines, seven words per line. It's an interesting form to play with, because once you write your first line you only have three lines before whoops, it's over. Like this:

There's a logic to all this, first
the leap into space, then the
attempt to see something quickly enough
that the last line (coming up fast)
doesn't cut you off before you're done.

It happens just that fast. The challenge is to see how much work you can get done in a very short space. Imagery can help:

Another April opens up, hummingbirds and bees
flitting in the branches of the cherry
trees, a restless breeze stirring the air.
The worst of the winter is behind
us, the sidewalks flanked with new flowers.

I found, after working in that framework for a while, that when I turned to writing sonnets, they seemed luxuriously roomy. I think that's been one of the enduring attractions of the sonnet in English: it's long enough that you can sink your teeth into a subject, but it's short enough to demand a certain amount of compression and attentiveness to each syllable. It's also very versatile in terms of the structural possibilities it presents, familiar to anyone who had to endure high school English: Octave and sestet. Three quatrains and a couplet. Seven and seven. Five and five and two. And of course the history of the sonnet is rich with examples of poets who just made up their own patterns within the fourteen-line constraint.

In any case, I'd say that something like eighty or ninety percent of the poems I've written of late have turned out to be sonnets, or at least sonnet-ish. (While I sometimes like to work with strict iambics and regular rhymes, more often I don't.) It's not like I started out any of these poems with the intention to write a sonnet; it's more that if the challenge is to open a topic, develop it, and then close it down, I often find myself in the neighborhood of 14 lines anyway, and thinking of it as a sonnet gave me something to work against: I need to cut two lines. I need to add a line and a half. That line is too long. That line is too short. This is of course one of the reasons that poets choose to work in forms in the first place: the form gives you something to work against; it forces you as a writer to come up with something just slightly—or maybe completely—different than what you might have said if you were just spooling out words as they came to you. It gives you the opportunity to surprise yourself.

So here is a sampling from the current body of work, now closing in on 30 sonnets. Got a ways to go to catch up to Uncle Will, but hey.


Swabbing the decks. Mending nets. Sewing patches
on torn sails. Polishing the brass fittings along the rail.
Ship at anchor under still black clouds. Clusters of seagulls
screech in the rigging, cruise over the dark water
in search of scraps. The captain has gone ashore,
for how long no one knows. Ripples of water lapping
at the hull. Smell of salt water and rotting seaweed.
The beach by the pier deserted but for two homeless men
in skull caps warming their hands over a driftwood fire.
The storefronts along the boardwalk shuttered, the streets
empty. The flag in the town square limp against the pole.
Distant ringing of bells from the churchtower somewhere
near the hills. On the afterdeck men sit and stare out to sea,
the first mate whistling softly as he sharpens his knife.

 Fever Dream

Enter reluctant disparities in keen-edged thwarted
restorations, relentless gravel and rock grinding,
storm-wind caterwaul, pellets of rain pounding
down, what we never expected, after cross-stitched
emendations, to be cast again back into hard weather,
notions ridiculous and scorned actualized, weaponized,
hard now at work, seething, stamping, spewing bits
of bone and hunks of flesh, smoke and stench roiling,
rivers of gravity-based black ink everywhere, recoiling
wretched malodorous eddies swirling, swallowing
whatever you make of them and spewing it back out
on blacktop do you remember what you thought
you had got before it all exploded and the smoke
came rolling down from the hills and choked your eyes.

Questions about Art

Painting is still the material form of desire.

                    - William Logan

Supposing this to be true, what kind of desire
might we be talking about? Sublimation? The yellows
and reds and blues inviting, as flowers do, bees,
the oblique mechanics of pollination and sex?
Is it a desire for self-transcendence, the urge to make
something to stand in for us when we are gone, to speak
for us once we can no longer speak for ourselves?
Or to evoke the viewer's desire to possess this work,
the pride of owning objects we have coveted, and won?
Or perhaps simply the desire to have, for as long as
we hold the brush in our hand, a focus, a reason to hope
that at the end of the day's work there will be something
real, something created, something visible to justify
the hours of our life given over to the making of it?


Four way stop at Maple and Main. Betty's Better Donuts:
red and white awnings, wrought-iron tables and chairs.
Round-topped blue post office box by the door. Lonely-
looking dog on a leash. Next door, two rundown houses,
porches caved in, ivy tendrils climbing the walls,
growing around and into the wheels of a rusted tricycle.
In the next lot, bounded by barbed wire, a swaybacked
bay mare swishes her tail, nibbles at weeds. In the oaks,
three crows stare off into the fog just starting to burn off.
Across the street, at the playground, two mothers sitting
side by side on a bench watching their kids chase each other
around the jungle gym. Up above the clouds, a white needle
pulling thread: vapor trail of a jet too high up to see. Me,
I'm looking out the window of the bus pulling out for Ames.

Take That

The light aggressive, intrusive, squinting
a stratagem, but only against perhaps a half
of what might effectively be blocked. Then
that noise, no longer white but burgeoning,
like motorboats growling on the mirrored
skin of the lake, or warrior ants sowing
trepidation and deliverance. What next?
Odor of skunk and lemon under the boughs
of the pin oaks. Working from outside in,
you whisper as if in supplication the words
of a nearly forgotten prayer. Overhead
a plane circling, circling, just audible above
the dripping leaves and the hum of the cicadas,
looking for some trace of human life.

 - - - - -

PS, several months later: I wound up compiling 28 of these sonnets (two sets of 14) into a little digital chapbook that you can see here if you are so inclined.

Wednesday, October 31, 2018

Always on the Train

I ran across a poem recently that seemed to me to be remarkable both as a message to the world and as a kind of master class in the practice of poetry. I suggest that you read it a few times yourself and collect your own preliminary thoughts before reading what follows:

Always on the Train

Writing poems about writing poems
is like rolling bales of hay in Texas.
Nothing but the horizon to stop you.

But consider the railroad’s edge of metal trash;
bird perches, miles of telephone wires.
What is so innocent as grazing cattle?
If you think about it, it turns into words.

Trash is so cheerful; flying up
like grasshoppers in front of the reaper.
The dust devil whirls it aloft; bronze candy wrappers,
squares of clear plastic—windows on a house of air.

Below the weedy edge in last year’s mat,
red and silver beer cans.
In bits blown equally everywhere,
the gaiety of flying paper
and the black high flung patterns of flocking birds.

                - Ruth Stone

The poem opens with radical simplicity. The first sentence is a simple, declarative statement about a poetic move that all writers, from grade school on up, have likely made at one time or another. In the course of fifty years of teaching, I've read countless poems that began something along the lines of

I am writing this poem this way
because I do not know what else to say
The teacher says I have to write a poem
so, I guess I'll just let my mind roam...

I don't have anything against this method of proceeding. If the goal is to get oriented, to get started, to get a line of thought going, writing a poem about how you feel about writing a poem is probably as good a place to begin as any. It's a move I've suggested to students who don't know where to begin. I've written more than a few poems that began that way myself.

Ideally what will happen is that, having gotten the poem moving, the poet will fall into something that opens the poem up in surprising ways. That's exactly what happens with Ruth Stone's poem, and it starts to happen right there in line two, with the simile that ends the first sentence:

Writing poems about writing poems
is like rolling bales of hay in Texas.

Really? How so? In what way is writing poems about writing poems like rolling bails of hay? And why Texas? The next line starts to develop this apparently random idea:

Nothing but the horizon to stop you.

So that's the Texas connection. Texas is big. Texas is flat. Once you get rolling, there's a lot of space to move in, all the way to the horizon. Which, of course, will recede as you move, so you've got even more room than you can see.

That first three-line stanza serves as a kind of frame for what follows. Presumably, having written the first three lines, Ruth Stone could have stopped there, leaving the poem as a kind of process-reflection haiku. But.

But. There it is, that powerful little word.

[Digression: On many occasions I have had reason to discuss with my students the power of the word "but." Notice, for example, the difference in impact between these two sentences:

    You didn't do your homework, but you passed the quiz.
    You passed the quiz, but you didn't do your homework.

Same content in each sentence. The exact same words, in fact. But the tonality of the sentences is completely different. The first sentence comes across as a kind of compliment. It appears to let the person spoken to off the hook. The second sentence comes across as a criticism, as a setup for further bad news. ("That's why you got a C rather than a B on the report card.") The power of the word "but" is that it tends to deemphasize—and sometimes make disappear entirely—whatever comes before it. And to focus attention on what comes after it. That's why people in the design-thinking community and other venues that hope to support creative thinking often preface their brainstorming sessions by stipulating that the phrase "Yes, but..." will not be allowed, and that group members should make a point of prefacing their remarks with "Yes, and...". EOD]

So Stone's second stanza begins with "But":

But consider the railroad’s edge of metal trash;
bird perches, miles of telephone wires.
What is so innocent as grazing cattle?
If you think about it, it turns into words.

Here the author is second-guessing herself, re-thinking, with that introductory "but," her original assertion that there is nothing in your way when you begin to write a poem about writing a poem. Even within the particular framework she has hypothesized with her Texas/horizon simile, there are things "in the way," or perhaps more significantly, "along" the way: Railroads. Trash. Bird perches. Cattle.

Now of course, all of these elements are in fact hypothetical. They're imagined. They're made up, as was the original simile, of words. But that's the point. Having set up the landscape comparison, it's natural enough to start imagining your way into that landscape, and as soon as you do, the energy level in the writing starts to jump. As Stone points out, "If you think about it, it turns into words." And suddenly our poem, which started out as a somewhat generalized reflection on writing poems about poems, has itself become more poem-like. The author is still holding the metacognitive thread in her mind; she's still thinking out loud about the relationship between thought and verbalization and poetry. But, as it turns out, not for long.

Stanza two began the transition from landscape-as-simile to landscape-as-imagined-space. The second half of the poem is in essence a falling through: the writer is no longer thinking about poetry, she's writing poetry, and a startling, dynamic, soaring poetry it turns out to be:

Trash is so cheerful; flying up
like grasshoppers in front of the reaper.
The dust devil whirls it aloft; bronze candy wrappers,
squares of clear plastic—windows on a house of air.

Below the weedy edge in last year’s mat,
red and silver beer cans.
In bits blown equally everywhere,
the gaiety of flying paper
and the black high flung patterns of flocking birds.

Now we're out on that Texas flatland, watching the reaper blow up candy wrappers and, behind them, the birds soaring in the sky overhead. The language here is compressed, imagistic, metaphorical ("windows on a house of air"!), musical (grasshopper, reaper, wrapper, paper; squares, air, everywhere; beer, bits, blown, black, birds). What began as a contemplation of poetry has metamorphosed, before our eyes, into a poem. Magical.

I love the way the poem opens up in the last two lines, how it takes us through the imaginative process, after we have been looking out, of looking up. And the closing image of "the black high flung patterns of flocking birds" gratifies both my sense of sight and my sense of hearing, the richness and symmetry of those b's and f's.

What I find most inspiring about this poem is the way that it demonstrates, the way it enacts, the poetic process itself. How do you write a poem? You begin somewhere. You begin where you begin, even if it's just to ask "Where do I begin?" Once you've done that, it's like you've boarded a train. You're on the way. You're moving. So you stay on that train and, as it begins to move across the landscape, write down what you see. Piece of cake.