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Wednesday, December 18, 2013

FAREWELL TO POETRY

jack

It's the middle of the day, the sun is out, temperature up to 50 with some wind that has a bitter edge. The calves are lying on the ground in the sunlight and the donkeys are standing quietly in the sun. I went to bed for a nap, but it didn't happen. Rather than fidget and wait, I got up. Don't have a will to do anything but sit and write to you. I'd like to sit with a book of Louise Gluck poems, but not enough. I saw recently that Robert Bly has a new book of selected poems published last year. I have his earlier books and some of the smaller books. Light Around the Body is the last book of his poems I have. He has published several since then. I put it on my wish list at amazon, a reminder for the future. There came a time I discovered Chinese poetry and Rilke. From then on, the Chinese poets were so totally satisfying I didn't care to read anything else when I wanted to see poetry. And Rilke was unlike anything else. In that time of my life I was interested in writing poetry, published some, came to the mountains with intent to write poems of the mountains. But when I came to the mountains everything changed. My desert island book is Sunflower Splendor, an anthology of Chinese poetry from beginning to mid 20th Century. With it, and the Tao te Ching, I could live minimally without need for other books. Titles start coming to mind I'd like to take along, the poems of John Berryman. Doesn't matter. It's not going to happen. I have my own private desert island library right here. I am curious now to see what Robert Bly has been doing over the last 40 or so years.
 
jack
 
Robert Bly, without knowing it, helped me make the decision to move to the mountains. He came to Charleston to give a reading and a talk, either late 1975 or early 76. I fell into the oppotunity to be his chauffer, pick him up before a reading and drive him to it, get him to where he needed to be on time. Between stops, we talked a good bit. I was wanting to get out of the city. I told him how I was so disappointed by American cities I wanted out. No cultural life, just television. I was thinking living rurally would be less wilderness than a city. Rural life has just television too, so it's the same cultural desert, just less objectionable than the smog of urban busyness. He affirmed my thinking. He agreed that the cities have little to nothing to offer the artist. Rural living has nothing to offer either, but it's a better way to live, not so crowded. I've liked Bly's boldness in his verse. I have appreciated his approach to the political poem. American poets were shy to go with the political poem for good reasons, like they are immediately dated. Bly's trick was to make them in such a way they have their place and time, are universal too. His poem about the Viet Nam war, The Teeth Mother Naked At Last, is quite a powerful piece of writing. Bly made a cassette tape of himself reading it. I played it for an old-time preacher friend, Millard Pruitt. He said, "Who is that? Buck Shaw?" Buck Shaw was a man we knew who preached from time to time, maybe what they call a lay preacher, meaning he's not "called" to preach, but feels it enough to stand in the pulpit now and again. I had not heard Bly's reading of the poem in that light. It cracked me up hearing Robert Bly in the pulpit. I cracked up too, because if I'd mentioned Bly was a liberal, preacher Pruitt could not have listened to it. He hated communist Jane Fonda. One afternoon I dropped in to visit, the tv was on, a movie. In the mountains, it is etiquette to leave the tv on when you have company, they might want to watch it too. I saw Jane Fonda in the movie. I said, "There's Jane Fonda." He turned it off.

jack says, got an eye on you

To get through my second winter in the mountains with a modicum of income, I found a job in the library at a "school" for the wayward kids of alcoholic suburban middle-class parents. It was a money hole for the Presbyterian church to throw money into. They put an old preacher they'd set out to pasture in charge of it, president. About thirty kids, a secretary and a kitchen staff, about ten teachers. They didn't give the kids any slack. Get in trouble, they kick you out. That way they got your non-refundable money and they don't have to fool with you. The energy of the place was in the dead zone. The library amounted to a room full of books people had given the school for the library rather than throw them away. Readers Digest condensed NY Times best-sellers, and popular novels from years past. Essentially, there was nothing useful about the library, but for a place for the kids to hang out. I had no actual work to do, so I busied myself making posters for the kids, individually, with a child's stamp set of alphabet and ink pad. The posters I made were poems by Chinese poet, Han Shan, from his book of one hundred poems, Cold Mountain. He was a Buddhist monk of a Taoist leaning. I picked poems that were fairly straight forward, yet had some mystery in them. I was giving them something to put on their dorm room walls that might inspire thinking about its meaning. The kids loved them. It took a little while, but eventually I made a poster for every one of them. They liked that they got it and it was still a little bit beyond their understanding, just enough to make them curious to search for it. One of the teachers, a YAP, Young American Poet, came into the library one day while I was making a poster. Having heard I was doing something quasi-educational with the kids that might need overseeing, he was sent by the other teachers to see what I was doing, something to do with poetry, something they didn't know anything about and didn't aim to. Ridiculously authoritative, he asked which translation I was using. I said, "Burton Watson." He said, "The Gary Snyder translation is better." I kept to myself, No it's not. I didn't want to argue about something so subjective.

jenny up close

I mention this guy, because he was the one whose influence put the brakes on my pursuit of poetry. He came to the school some weeks after I did. I thought, O Wow, somebody I can talk with about writing, feeling like he was a Godsend. Turned out he drew attention to himself as a beer drinker. He strutted and talked about himself in very impressive terms, his publications, etc. I'd seen his style so many times among other YAPs I'd met, it made me question my own motivations. I saw him chasing a style that was mainstream at the moment, new, the latest. I found him fake in every way. I found his writing fake. I looked at him and thought: this is what I want for myself? He was already a little bit into that world I was heading into. My peeps into that world showed me a lot of people with his particular self-conscious style. I told myself I would never write again until it needed writing so badly it wrote itself. I felt like making a farewell gesture to my own attempts at poetry I had begun to suspect as false in myself. I picked up a National Geographic and randomly cut out two paragraphs, cut out each word from the paragraphs, put the words from each paragraph in separate bowls. I picked up the words, one at a time, wetting the tip of my finger and touching the pile. I wrote down the words that came up in the order I picked them up. I typed each one into a poem form, very loose with words strewn about as if I felt they had meaning, and put them in YAP's mail slot with a note, "I wanted you to see my new poems." He never acknowledged seeing them and never spoke to me again. I don't know if he "made it" as a name in American poetry, because I forgot his name. I believe in retrospect he was indeed a Godsend. The gesture with nonsense poems was my statement to him that I took him for a fraud. It was kinda mean, especially since he got it. Though what he got only helped him see me a dumber asshole than he already thought. Like the nerd's tshirt said, Keeps Em Away.  

jack says, bye
 
 
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1 comment:

  1. I will have to admit that I just found your blogs because of your commenting to me on mine and I am enjoying them very much so will keep on reading. I may not comment but will read as much as I have time for..You write in such an easy way for reading....

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