Return Smile (Poem)

Pizza joint
Under the Silver Memorial Bridge

The man I do not know
Smiles me a great, toothy smile

Jolted, I stretch my mouth to
Return smile

Then, I know

The man I do not know–
He is eating his pizza
Hot from the oven
His great, toothy smile
Result of trying to bite
His slice without burning
His lips

My return smile meets
Cautious chewing incomprehension

Pizza disjoint
Under the Silver Memorial Bridge

 

Wodehouse’s Caliban at Sunset (Poem)

I stood with a man
Watching the sun go down.
The air was full of murmurous summer scents
And a brave breeze sang like a bugle
From a sky that smouldered in the west,
A sky of crimson, amethyst, gold and sepia
And blue as blue were the eyes of Helen
When she sat
Gazing from some high tower in Ilium
Upon the Grecian tents darkling below.And he,
This man who stood beside me,
Gaped like some dull, half-witted animal
And said,
“I say,
Doesn’t that sunset remind you
Of a slice
Of underdone roast beef?”

Directive (Robert Frost)

I have had Whitman much on my mind for the past few weeks.  Attempting to clarify for myself the strange mixture of love and indifference that Whitman poems provoke in me, I turned back to a longtime favorite, Frost.  Looking at him has been helpful.  His poetry succeeds in ways that make my (sometimes rapidly) hardening and unhardening heart toward Whitman make better sense to me:  it has helped me to clarify and to define my own perceptions and judgments, and my own aims as a poet.  I will not get into those issues now, however.

I will share one of my favorite of Frost’s poems, maybe my favorite–“Directive”.  It is a poem that shares thematic elements with Whitman’s late poems, but is a poem compelled forward by a syntactic compression and complexity that is foreign to Whitman.

Drink and be whole again beyond confusion!

Directive

Back out of all this now too much for us,
Back in a time made simple by the loss
Of detail, burned, dissolved, and broken off
Like graveyard marble sculpture in the weather,
There is a house that is no more a house
Upon a farm that is no more a farm
And in a town that is no more a town.
The road there, if you’ll let a guide direct you
Who only has at heart your getting lost,
May seem as if it should have been a quarry –
Great monolithic knees the former town
Long since gave up pretense of keeping covered.
And there’s a story in a book about it:
Besides the wear of iron wagon wheels
The ledges show lines ruled southeast-northwest,
The chisel work of an enormous Glacier
That braced his feet against the Arctic Pole.
You must not mind a certain coolness from him
Still said to haunt this side of Panther Mountain.
Nor need you mind the serial ordeal
Of being watched from forty cellar holes
As if by eye pairs out of forty firkins.
As for the woods’ excitement over you
That sends light rustle rushes to their leaves,
Charge that to upstart inexperience.
Where were they all not twenty years ago?
They think too much of having shaded out
A few old pecker-fretted apple trees.
Make yourself up a cheering song of how
Someone’s road home from work this once was,
Who may be just ahead of you on foot
Or creaking with a buggy load of grain.
The height of the adventure is the height
Of country where two village cultures faded
Into each other. Both of them are lost.
And if you’re lost enough to find yourself
By now, pull in your ladder road behind you
And put a sign up CLOSED to all but me.
Then make yourself at home. The only field
Now left’s no bigger than a harness gall.
First there’s the children’s house of make-believe,
Some shattered dishes underneath a pine,
The playthings in the playhouse of the children.
Weep for what little things could make them glad.
Then for the house that is no more a house,
But only a belilaced cellar hole,
Now slowly closing like a dent in dough.
This was no playhouse but a house in earnest.
Your destination and your destiny’s
A brook that was the water of the house,
Cold as a spring as yet so near its source,
Too lofty and original to rage.
(We know the valley streams that when aroused
Will leave their tatters hung on barb and thorn.)
I have kept hidden in the instep arch
Of an old cedar at the waterside
A broken drinking goblet like the Grail
Under a spell so the wrong ones can’t find it,
So can’t get saved, as Saint Mark says they mustn’t.
(I stole the goblet from the children’s playhouse.)
Here are your waters and your watering place.
Drink and be whole again beyond confusion.

On a Certain Use of ‘Democratic’ in Whitman

I have come to Whitman slowly, zigzag, reluctant.  I do not know why.  I do not know fully why.  I do know that my youthful exposure to him left me in flinty indifference.  (I must have pulled Leaves off the shelves in, say, 10th grade.  I worked in a library and stood and read what I shelved or read what caught my eye near what I shelved.  I was not–and was–an ideal library employee.)  I reckon that part of my (lack of) reaction was tied up to the ceaseless singing of ‘democracy’.  I have always had a hard time with art that slummed with politics.  My thought must have been somesuch:  “Yeah, right, democracry.  It’s great and all.  But come on.  Canting for democracy?  Not just any democracy, but an earlier version of the one I inhabit?  No, no, not for me.  Go your own way, Walt.  I will go mine.”

I am not here to apologize for my 10th grade self.  He was my 10th grade self–sophomoric by definition.  I have not, at any rate, put that child away entirely.  He is still along for my ride.  I still shrink from the appearance of politics in poetry.  That’s a reaction of mine not yet completely owned.  I hope one day to own it completely or to shrug it off.

Whitman with butterfly

But a couple of days ago, caught up now in a much different general reaction to Whitman, I came across this, from the “Preface Note to Second Annex”:

I have probably not been enough afraid of careless touches, from the first–and am not now–nor of parrot-like repetitions–nor platitudes and the commonplace.  Perhaps I am too democratic for such avoidances.

That use of ‘democratic’ stopped me.  (It is, I admit, in the half-hug of ‘perhaps’.  But I rate that staginess and not an expression of actual half-heartedness.)  I had made a very similar use of it myself earlier in the day.  But my use of it was not meant to be political, but rather ur-political, a recognition of a fact about human relations that underwrites any political use of ‘democratic’ I could vote for.  So too,  realized, was Whitman’s.

Each of us inevitable,
Each of us limitless–each of us with his or her rights upon the earth,
Each of us allow’d the eternal purports of the earth,
Each of us here as divinely as any is here. (Salut Au Monde!)

His, my, our use of ‘democratic’ is a use as a greeting-word, as a profound acknowledgement of others, not en masse, not as a political body, but as an each-in-all, as individuals too distinguished to be the same and too similar to be entirely distinguished.  Such an acknowledgement makes demands, demands even on art, on poetry.  (And on philosophy.) It demands writing poetry to such individuals and for such individuals.  It demands an unclamping, letting the poetic machinery run free, acquiring a careless, carefree touch.  It demands liberation from an over-active poetic conscience, from concern about repetition, about platitude, about commonplaces, about saying something too trivial and obvious, something insincere, something unworthy of reader or occasion.  The poet must overcome scruples and take the breaks off his heart, and let his tongue wag unleashed, garrulous to the very last.

This feature of Transcendentalism-of Emerson and Thoreau, and, yes, I now admit, Whitman–is one that makes it honorable, and that ties it to writers and philosophers I care about, each of them a Transcendentalist in his or her way:  Socrates, Plato, Kierkegaard, James, Wittgenstein, Lawrence, Frost, Murdoch, Anscombe, Robinson.  It demands that we lift up our ordinary lives into our philosophical imagination, making them receptive to intense reflection, without making them fodder for scholarship or museum preservation, never forgetting that the point is to know those lives better so as to live them better.

(I am not claiming to have made a discovery for anyone else here, only for myself.  I now suppose that this use of ‘democratic’ is all over Whitman, and that everyone but me has known it.)

 

 

To Get the Final Lilt of Songs (Whitman)

To get the final lilt of songs,
To penetrate the inmost lore of poets–to know the mighty ones,
Job, Homer, Eschylus, Dante, Shakspere, Tennyson, Emerson;
To diagnose the shifting-delicate tints of love and pride and doubt–to truly understand,
To encompass these, the last keen faculty and entrance-price,
Old age, and what it brings from all its past experiences.

Single Wide Life (Poem)

2014-12-23 09.43.27

 

Single Wide Life

Growing up in a double wide trailer
Single wide world

Coal-gutted hillsides
Power plants loom umbrageous
Over my high school

Kyger, Gavin Plants
Lighting New York, New York
Dumping cancer
Killing Cheshire, Ohio

Southern Ohio, welfare checks in the mail
Daughters pregnant another time, bun in the oven,
Bigger check in the box

Valedictorian  enlisted (Navy)
Sight the world to see it
Life keeps on–an enlarging stain

“Cough, cough:
Has the mail come?
Shut the damn baby up!”

Chris gets on the bus
Holding a browned dishrag
To his bloody mouth:
He fell, he says:
His sister whispers their
Dad broke a coffee cup
Across Chris’ mouth

He squeezes into a corner of the seat,
Takes out a paperback of Candide:
He is reading it because I did
And he reads while his lip clots

Pangloss
The best of all possible worlds

Growing up in a double wide trailer
Single wide life

 

Philosopher (F. H. Bradley) (Poem)

I do realize that poetry–or an attempt at it–about obscure dead philosophers is not exactly a growth industry…

 

Philosopher (F. H. Bradley)

I do not know whether this in my case is a mark of senility, but I find myself now taking more and more as literal fact what I used in my youth to admire and love as poetry.”  –Bradley

McTaggart, on meeting Bradley:  “I felt as if a Platonic Idea had walked into the room.”

He lives
Stretched
Taut between
Appearance and reality

Overdone with
Metaphysics

Perhaps

Underdone with
Virtue

He does not much leave the house

As if drumly
Knowledge
Of the Good
Could substitute
For living
In its light

“On all questions, if you push me far enough, at present I end in doubts and             perplexities.”

He lives
Systemless
Amid systems
Without a view
In an age
Of worldviews

“The older I grow, the more I recoil from any forced venture in the dark.”

Mortal
And so
Wounded
He picks
The scab

Nothing is
Removed from
Existence by
Being labelled
“Appearance”

He lives
Stuck
With it all

All is real
Even if not
Really real

His habitual mood
Diffident bewilderment–
It is all too
Too much

There is
No lorica
No padding
Against it all

Vulnerability
Is demanded

Bleeding

Is conclusive
Acknowledgement
Of the real

An opened
Wound
The sign
Of self-sacrifice

 

Increscunt animi, virescit volnere virtus

 

Philosophy demands
That he extinguish
Spiritual pride
But nothing
Kindles that fire
More

Vanity snuffs
Wisdom

So he must
Not think

He can save
Anyone else

The trouble
Of thinking

The goal
Is to stimulate
Thoughts on
First principles
And not
To supply them

The love
Of wisdom
Is love
Unsatisfied

In the twilight
He sounds out
The idols

He has ears even behind his ears

His truths
Are borne
In time

He lives
Stretched absolutely taut
Between dogmatism
And skepticism

Yes
And
No

‘Eat’, ‘Prey’, ‘Love’? (Poem)

‘Eat’, ‘Prey’, ‘Love’?

Abuzz
With words

Hived in paper
Droning on

Syrupping my mouth
Stickying my hands
Honeycombing my hair

Killer bees

Word sting

Aswarm
With words

Ankle high
Word pile

Kick the anthill
Words skitter scatter
Up pants leg
Tiny electroshocks

Fire ants

Word bite

Acrawl
With words

Words fight back
Mean me no good

Retreat

Hiphopping
Blowing smoke
But no control
They live
Hive- and hill-minded
One over many

Hear them talking
Amongst themselves
Barely audible hubbub

Me against babel

Queen bee
Queen ant:
Wannabe, can’t

No control
Orders ignored
Declining to decline
Buggy grammarian’s funeral
The words sing together

Die from the head down
Feet up

My corpse
Word food

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