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ontology

I am not a secular poet, have never been a secular poet, and my work is a journey through both the imagery of my working class Irish Catholic background and my sense of the the incarnate word as Shema Mitzvah–the oneness of God within the act of love toward neighbor. First Shema:

Hear O Israel, the lord, the lord is one.
And you shall love the lord
with all your mind and with all your heart
and with all your strength

and the Mitzvah is

And the second commandment is like unto it: love your neighbor as yourself.

All other commandments are contained within these two, the whole of the law, the spirit of the law. They are the ontology of my poems, and to truly enter my work, you must understand it in the context of Shema Mitzvah. I do not believe in the separation of faith and works, but, like James, believe faith without works is dead, and works without faith is merely materialism as a form of the dole. Given a choice of which I’d prefer, I’d take works without faith which makes me a radical, but I would not take it happily since I think bread without spirit, and material comfort without conscience is barely worth the bother.

Jesus Christ incarnates into the broken life and impurity of the world. God descends downward, infusing all people, landscapes, and things with the presence of divinity. At the same time, God, having taken on the manner and appearance, and real flesh and needs of the world, is infused with the world which is broken, impure, profane, often ugly, and far from pious. It is also in this world of the broken that Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh, waits to be recognized. Christ is not to be found so readily in the “purified” realms, but in the midst of the broken, those who are fucked up, strange, unable to live either fully in the world (highest level of Arete–prowess) or fully in God (highest level of Xenia–care for the other)–my poems seek to witness to those who are imperfect and less than fully human but given full humanity by the incarnate word, also to those who are imperfect and less than fully divine, given divine resonance by God come to dwell amongst us: the motley, the dark, sometimes grotesque comic force of the demi-god, the half-God, Half Monster, neither fully man nor fully divine–us, the half assed. The moment in which Christ (fully man and fully God ) is seen in the “least”, is the moment that the unity of Shema Mitzvah is fully realized–the ground zero of being, which, for me, is Eucharistic reality. To put it simply: I seek in my poetics the moment when the divine is seen in the other, and the divine is not Jerusalem, the expected place, but Bethlehem, the lowly place, the place unsought, but stumbled upon, the “slip of the pen”–that is a moment of Eucharistic reality–grace. Grace appears under the following signs in my poems:

1. The Visible Signs beneath which the Shema Mitzvah lies concealed and revealed: failure, imperfection, exile, ostracism, the ugly, the lost, the comic and inept, the unrequited, the kindly, the motley and in the Falstaff-like bluster of certain of my poetic voices. There are also choices of lineation, and language by which I seek this out: mixed registers of speech, hyperbolic utterances punctured by deadpan understatements, comic or ferocious rants, ungainly one word lines, lines that wobble between long and short– all of this is towards my thematic core:the presence of the divine afflatus where it seems least likely to belong.

I use characters, dialogue, and narrative in an almost novelistic way. I believe poetry has abdicated its perfection as a vehicle for getting straight to the heart of a story to prose which, by its very nature as a conveyor of information, must be far more expository. Prose informs and expounds. Poetry incites and enacts a more immediate ceremony. Most poems, especially free verse poems, are a combination of poetic and prosaic elements, on a spectrum between poetry and prose–demi- gods. I will use an undulating line, an ungainly line because I am not after symmetry. I am after some order within sprawl–the great sprawl of the living and the dead.

2. Personified I, Vatic I, Personal I, and the mutt of all three: Many of the I-voices in my poetry are personifications. In a few poems (“Morning at the Elizabeth Arch”, for example) the I voice is Vatic– the sound of one speaking with authority and almost impersonal gravitas, the I invoking (look! Shemah–listen up!). Sometimes I will employ the personal I as in a memoir (Fists (for my father), or “Elegy of Sue Rapeezi”), but this personal I is likely to blur with the personified I. The mutt I make of all three may confuse a reader who wants the voice to be a genuine contemporary personal voice, or the voice of a character, or that sort of “Wise white man” voice you get with Stephen Dunn. There is also the intentionally stupid, or know-nothing voice of the speculative post-modernist, influenced both by the surreal, comic shtick, and dadaism. I am prone to using all these I’s and mixing them up. It’s important to know that in order to understand my emphasis on the motley. I am doing my own: I contain multitudes. My version also entertains the the darker possibility of “I am legion” (possessed by many demons and conflicted).

I write this not as an apologetic for my poetry, but as an aid to entering it with a greater awareness of its intentions. Of course, each reader misreads differently, and each brings to a body of work his or her own sense of the author’s intentions,successes and failures. To a more secular mind, all I might be doing is writing about losers. To a more sociological type, I may be showing my preference for the underdog. To those who like their lines symmetrical, and their words in a consistent register, many of my tunes may seem full of wrong notes. To those who judge the lyrical merely by the absence of the narrative, I may fail to be lyrical enough. So be it. This is my essay on my intentions. Poem by poem, those intentions wait to be realized or unrealized. On that I rest my case.

Now that you know something about free verse, I thought we’d approach imagery. You will hear in workshops: “Show, don’t tell,” but that’s a bunch of malarkey. It should be: “Show what tells.” If all you have is mere description, your poem will be like someone’s photo album: interesting to you, but perhaps boring to everyone else. Many poets can describe a tree–and this is no small accomplishment–but it is very rare that a tree is just a tree.

Elizabeth Bishop’s poem “The Fish” is so wonderful in its visual accuracy that she can get away with it just being about catching a tremendous fish, but besides being one hum dinger of a fish story, it is also about the mystery, the amazement of what we might turn up when we venture forth into the world. Wonder and awe are at the heart of the ontology of this poem. Ontology is the being that both proceeds from the poem, and animates it. Best description of ontology I can give is from my life: once, I was in an overcrowded and dark car, riding to the Jersey shore. I thought my bare leg was against the bare leg of a girl I was “in love” with. The whole ride was in relation to this leg. Oh brave new world! The lights scything across the car, the sound of air planes thirty thousand feet above the vehicle, the smells of Perth Amboy… it all went into this moment when I thought: “My leg is against my love’s leg, and she has not moved her leg, and I hope she never moves her leg until we get to the shore, and she falls naked and impassioned beneath me while the sea roars, and the moon is a ghostly galleon, etc, etc, and so forth.” The feel of her leg against mine became the center of my universe. I didn’t look. I closed my eyes, to restrict my senses to the tactile. When the car stopped at a red light, I glanced over and saw that my leg was against a different girl’s leg, a girl I did not like at all. It greatly disappointed me. The rest of the drive passed uneventfully, except the girl I did not like now thought I liked her.

I had taken a single detail and made a whole world out of it. Sometimes a leg is just a leg. Imagism, in its most radical form, advocates that a leg be just a leg. Some poets are anti-ontological. Haiku, in its strict form, is supposed to build an ontology through images alone–no overt emotions, or opinions of the imagery. It should imply a season:

Old man pissing in a grave yard.
Up from the tomb stones
smoke.

We’ll if smoke rises, or something like smoke, it is probably pretty damned cold. We don’t have to make a connection between the rising smoke, the piss, and the old man. I do. So here’s a rule of thumb: as much as possible, choose images that will create the effect, the mood or truth or emotion you desire. Just as good, choose images that will incite the reader to do the work for you. Don’t just describe. Also, don’t overdo the images.

Haiku is not 5,7,5. Anyone who has read Ron Padgett’s wonderful work on poetry forms, and anyone who has taken a class in Haiku will know this. I don’t like Haiku all that much, but I’ve written thousands, most of which I use as scrap material for my longer poems. You can link the Haiku:

Old man pissing in a grave yard
up from the tomb stones
smoke.

He adjusts his fly.
Snow on the stone angel,
snow melting into his P coat.

At the Baptist church,
free lunch
with a two hour service.

The girl smiles.
Jesus loves you.
Sound of forks scraping plates.

Ok, so now we can assume the old man might be homeless, or indigent, or willing to put up with God for a free lunch. It’s up to the poet.

Remember, telling through showing is relatively new–about a hundred years old in Western poetry. Pound and all those early modernists were influenced by the Japanese and Chinese. It was a way of getting rid of maxims, and rhetoric, and all the clutter of rhetorical devices. Let’s translate an older poem into this sort of thing:

Let me not to the marriage of true minds
admit impediments; love is not love
which alters when it alteration finds
or bends with the remover to remove.
Oh, no, it is an ever fixed mark.

Impede what? The marriage of true minds! Or perhaps “impediments” is not a verb here, but a noun, and means imperfections.

The wife adjusts her senile husband’s
hospital gown. She covers his ass,
Her hands remembering him.

I like the Shakespeare way better. Images alone can be boring, and they have a certain arrogance. Why should an oak tree at sunset move me? And why should an old lady, covering her senile husband’s ass, equal faithfulness and steadfastness in love? Suppose I despise sunsets. Or suppose I think people should be euthanized when they become senile. Who is the writer to assume an oak tree at sunset will make me feel tender, or that I will care about a doddering old couple? Who indeed!

We must be careful what we assume a reader knows or feels. For this reason, a poem ought to offer layers of meaning. Also, we should be careful when telling what we think is true. We should not bully a reader; neither should we be so unwilling to say anything that we bog down in our mystifications. One can either find something deeper, or just enjoy the surfaces.

So here’s a difficult assignment if you’re up for it: take a poem that makes a statement, like Shakespeare’s sonnet, and “translate” it into sensual imagery, so that the statement is implied through the imagery, and nothing else. Proverbs are good for this:

You can’t take it with you.
They also serve who only stand and wait
Death be not proud nor honor long.
Like flies to wanton boys are we to the gods; they kill us for their sport.

I spoke of ontology before, the significance of being that stems from a poem, but there are minor poems, small triumphs of imagery, of rhythm, or beauty that make us think: “Why am I so concerned with truth or significance? Right now, my lover is asleep, and the venetian blinds are leaving their shadow across her face, and I wish I could stay here. Fuck Tolstoy. Fuck King Lear. I want to kiss her nose.”

Well, maybe others just take everything that makes life bearable for granted, or maybe they use this moment to consider how, in sleep, a lover may as well be a tree—that there is a certain terrifying aspect to the lover unconscious and unaware of, well, of me! I’ve had girlfriends wake me up because they were lonely. Sometimes, I don’t mind, especially if we start making out again. But sometimes it annoys me. None of this will win me a Nobel prize. But what I remember about Anna is not the plight of very rich noblewomen in 1870′s Russia; I remember the moment when Count Vronski breaks his horse’s back, or when Oblonski (Steve to his friends) wakes at the beginning from a very pleasant dream (dancing decanters with pretty legs, and opera) to realize he and his wife, Dolly are on the outs because he’s been schtupping the children’s governess.

I remember the details. I also mis-remember them, an equally wonderful thing, since what we mis-remember can be so vivid. I know people who misremember whole relationships, and, once their sour husband is dead, they get weepy eyed over finding an unmatched sock of his tucked away in a drawer. We do not mis-remember concepts or attitudes, or “truths” because they are the rather rickety frame on which we dab the mud of our memories and false impressions, and make for that doomed hut we call consciousness. As a friend of mine says: “caress the details, the divine details.”

The ontology of some poems is as follows: to capture, in however full a way, the precise, oh so precise feel of pussy williow against your neck the last time you saw Vanya, who spun about, and struck the soft spring ground with a stick, and then vanished into her career, her resume, the lie of just the facts which can never, never summon forth the quickened pulse, the despair of knowing you would not see her again and that she probably married some guy who never noticed anything except that he thought he ought to. Poets remind us of the obvious, the glorious obvious that we have forgotten while we were busy “living” our “meaningful” lives.

If you write enough poems that capture such a moment, you will be considered a minor poet, but we should investigate this term minor: rather than meaning less than great, it can mean great in a small, and specific way. Consider this Robert Herrick gem:

Feign would I kiss my Julia’s dainty leg
which is as white and hairless as an egg.”

In our humorless, and supposedly explicit (though not at all erotic) culture, we have lost the gift perhaps of appreciating such exquisite, and mincing desires.

I am worried. I am worried that people are out there having sex and never noticing what a leg feels like against their leg. What kind of world is that? Minor my ass. That’s the whole of the sky! It’s as important as believing in God, since God is in the details—not the maxims.

This brings me to truck out one of my old time favorite “minor” poems, “The Base Stealer” by Robert Francis. Besides the five senses, there is also kinetic imagery—those combinations of words that create a certain sense of movement in a poem, that describe movement. Rilke has a great kinetic image in his poem about the gazelle (Look it up on line. It’s there, and if you can tell me what that kinetic image is, I’ll give you ten extra credit points). Francis is the greatest minor poet America produced. Donald Justice comes close, and May Swenson gives both a run for their money. And Robert Haydn ain’t no slouch, either, (Those Winter Sundays may be the best sonnet written by An American poet in the 20th century). But, poem for poem, you don’t get more perfect than Francis. His work makes me so ashamed of everything I’ve ever written. This is the best depiction of a man stealing a base ever. It is also the best use of kinetic imagery I know, And look what he does with the word, delicate, in the last line!

The Base Stealer

Poised between going on and back, pulled
both ways taut like a tightrope-walker,
finger tips pointing the opposites,
Now bouncing tip toe like a dropped ball
Or a kid skipping rope, come on, come on,
running a scattering of steps sideways,
How he teeters, skitters, tingles, teases,
taunts them, hovers like an ecstatic bird,
He’s only flirting, crowd him, crowd him,
Delicate, delicate, delicate, delicate—now!

Francis uses gerunds (ings) properly—to create suspense, to create tension. The word delicate has a certain bounce to it—a perfect sense of bounce. It sounds like its meaning: ready to burst or break. “Come on, come on” in line five gives a sense that anticipating the runner’s break for second is becoming sheer torture. You don’t have to like or even know baseball to appreciate this. If you have never seen a ball player get ready to steal, or threaten to steal, watch a video on YouTube, and you will see the triumph of kinetic accuracy this poem happens to be. And notice how he uses his T sounds! The hard T sound appears in almost every line, sometimes as the initial sound of the word (taut, tightrope, tip toe, teeters, tingles, teases, taunts) and also in medial or terminal positions (between, taut, pointing, opposites, scattering, steps, skitters, ecstatic, delicate). It’s an essay on how to use -ings, and how to thread a sound through a poem for maximum effect. It’s a minor masterpiece, and I do not use minor in a demeaning way. Literary theorists use literature as an excuse for ontological truths (or gender, or sexual, or identity issues). This is a legitimate way to ransack texts, but it will not teach you how to write. Ontology begins with detail selection—in terms of word choice, verbal relationships, rhythm. A theorist wouldn’t know what to do with this poem, unless the theorist started to write a book on kinetics in terms of verbal constructs and the cultural bias of admiring athletes as per one’s gender, or class. Minor may only mean a theorist can’t find much to theorize about. Now Herricks little couplet could be an example of the “objectification” of a woman’s body parts. But suppose we get rid of all appreciation of the body in poems… have we not turned a human being into an “idea” then—a political or theoretical entity. I don’t know. But our culture is terrified of details. All governments and religions are terrified of details, especially when they temporarily re-route or short circuit “general” ideas. Power depends on symbols we don’t really think about—on orienting us towards the automatic. There is no more revolutionary act in poetry than to see or depict something from a fresh point of view, to liberate it from the graveyard of received ideas. “Make it new,” said the early modernists. I would qualify that statement to read: “make it obvious, and better still, makes us startled by the obvious.”