Friday, May 12, 2017


In the same way that artists and writers are often pleasurably surprised by the way their work is enriched when it doesn't evolve according to plan, I am often delighted, when looking for one thing, to find another. This is one argument for browsing as an act of value creation.

The other day I went to the local library to pick up a book I had reserved. While I was there I went over to the new book section, as I most often do, just to see what might be of interest on the shelves. There was nothing in the fiction section that caught my eye, but over further I noticed that there were several new books of poetry: Whereas by Stephen Dunn, who I have admired for a long time, and The Last Shift by Philip Levine, a posthumous collection by another writer I have read with appreciation for many years. I snapped both of them up, and then noticed one more book by a writer I had never heard of: Self Portrait as Wikipedia Entry, by Dean Rader. I liked the line drawings on the cover, and as I flipped through it it looked as if it might be interesting, especially since a number of the poems seemed to reference Paul Klee, whose approach to and thinking about art has been a big influence on my own work, so I took that one as well.

When I got home, I sat down and read through the Dunn and Levine books first, and found in each a couple of poems I wanted to include in my archives. (I began collecting poems in the mid-1970's, when I was teaching middle school English and was trying to find poems that might serve in the classroom to introduce students to the way poems work. I started with a single folder with four or five poems in it; eventually I had a folder for every letter of the alphabet with multiple poems by dozens of authors represented in each folder.) Back in the day, I used to just photocopy poems that I liked. Over the last ten years or so I have taken to typing them out, primarily because I find that doing so gives me to the opportunity to attend to the way the poem unfolds, one word, one line at a time. In so doing I often notice things about the way the poem is put together—the way the lines break, repeated words, patterns of sound, etc.—that I don't necessarily pick up by just by moving my eyes across the little black marks on the page and then heading for the photocopier.

The big surprise came when I started reading the poems by Dean Rader. He's a thoughtful, witty, offbeat writer whose poetry exemplifies the spirit of writing that I have throughout my career tried to encourage in my students. His poems are excursions, explorations, investigations. They are surprising both in conception and in execution. Many of them are linked explicitly or implicitly to visual art. Of the fifty-one poems in the volume, 24 include the words "Self-Portrait" in the title, and each of those poems is indeed a kind of self-portrait of the writer at a particular moment in time, or in the case of the poem I'm about to quote—typical of Rader's atypicality—at a particular moment outside of time. Here are the first few lines of "Self-Portrait: Postmortem":

Imagine a poem that begins at the end, in that big boat beyond the end,
where things are both timeless and no longer part of time or even part of things,

which is a little bit like picturing water without waves or light without the stars
but not at all like a sky made entirely of stars or the stars composed

of our thoughts about them, more like the body's bones minus their crushed music
of music free of meaning and misapprehension, but most of all like a seas

in which there is neither up nor down, forward or backward, depth or distance,
only the motion of stasis, the weight of weightlessness.

I love the way this poem unspools itself, starting with the simple injunction to imagine a certain kind of poem, and then following the emerging line of thought to its logical conclusion. (Although the logic, in this case, is being stretched and extended in ways that may seem il-logical but are appropriate to the investigation.) And the "conclusion" of the poem, some twenty lines later, actually brings us back to where we began, with the word "imagine":

You sit beside me in the dark ride as the organ plays and our boat lifts and drops over
the edge. We are so close, it is as if we have traveled the many distances solely for this.

You ask if I hear the violin, and I ask if you fear what awaits you. But you
remind me that we are not afraid of what we cannot see, only of what we can imagine.

There are many other odd resonances for me in this collection. When my children were young my wife and I used to love reading Arnold Lobel's Frog and Toad books to them. Rader, who is often allusive (his poems reference Rilke, Frost, Basho, Neruda, Dickinson, Shakespeare, Twain, Ginsburg, and Wallace Stevens, among many others), includes in each of the five sections of the book a poem referencing my old friends Frog and Toad. There is, for example, a very playful poem entitled "Frog and Toad Confront Basho beneath the Wreckage of the Moon," which is a sequence of 14 haiku. A couple of examples:

Toad leaps from the stone
into the river's black heart.
Frog pictures the stone.


Snow on the mountain,
water in the pond, Toad
and Frog leap in the moon.

*  (with a nod to Stevens)

The river is move-
ing The blackbird must be fly-
ing. The toad? Eat-ing

There are other poems in this collection that seem to me to ready-mades for teachers in pretty much any classroom from elementary school to college. There's a poem entitled "Democracy; or Poem in Which Readers Select Their Favorite Last Line." It consists of the same six-line poem presented five times, each with a different last line each time. Read. Reflect. Discuss. Which last line works for you? Why? How does this last line change the way you think about the rest of the poem? Find another poem that you think could be improved by the substitution of a different line. Write a poem of your own and consider multiple possible last (first, middle) lines. Etc, etc, etc.

In a similarly useful vein, should you happen to be a teacher looking to jumpstart a discussion of the work that titles can do when writing poetry, (or simply a reader interested in the physiology of poetics) is the "Poem in Which Readers Select Their Favorite Title." The five possible titles are listed, multiple-choice style (A-E) at the top of the page. My experience has taught me that most students view poems—and most other pieces of published writing—as the end-product of a very matter-of-fact process that begins with having something to say ends with the completion of the necessary but unenviable task of saying it. Rader's work offers clear illustrations of the dimensions of writing that students tend to underestimate, if not miss entirely: its playfulness, its mystery, the explorational quality that Picasso talks about with regard to his artwork:

"Ideas are simply starting points. I can rarely set them down as they come to my mind. As soon as I start to work, others well up in my pen. To know what you're going to draw, you have to begin drawing… What I capture in spite of myself interests me more than my own ideas…"

It may seem from my too-brief summary that Rader is merely playful, but that is not the case. Yes, at times he's goofing around. But he's also extraordinarily attentive to the way words work together, well-grounded as a thinker, and disciplined about the architectural qualities of his sentences and stanzas. Here are the last few lines of his poem "Self-Portrait with Contemplation":

It is evening. I think of Rilke and the
longing for infinity and absence

rung into the deep silence of the self.
If silence is bitter, change yourself to song.

O listener, I think of you alone there
on the cliff's edge of your daily duties,

waiting, the way saints wait, for the
falling to cease and the fire to rise,

when the tiniest note, the loveliest letter
from this world finally arrives.

Self-Portrait as Wikipedia Entry is Rader's letter to the world. Check it out.

 (Here are links to two samples… the title poem (Self Portrait as Wikipedia Entry,) and a .pdf of the poem Paul Klee's Winter Journey at the End of Summer.)