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Mondrian-red-tree

The Nest
By Carl Dennis

The omens of fall are out again.
We sit in the park with our feet bedded in leaves.
The wind widens,
The sun grows small,
Warnings that friends should band together
For joint defenses before the end.
Now it seems foolish for anyone
To grow cold alone.

You want me to turn and notice you
But I look inside.
There I can see bare branches
With a single bird
Peering out at the litter of fall.
He has built his nest too high in the tree
Or too small.

This poem, like all Dennis poems, has a simple surface but a lurking depth. Its title, right off, tells us there is a bird involved, or at least the evidence of a bird. Birds in poetic tradition are often identified with poets because they both sing. Keats’s nightingale, Hardy and Frost’s thrushes are all simultaneously birds and bards that tell us more about the human world than the natural one. In this case, it is significant that we are given the evidence of a bird since poets too leave evidence of themselves: all those leaves in all those books. And haven’t we all seen abandoned nests in the bare winter trees? One can’t help wondering of both birds and poets, what will survive.

The opening line, “The omens of fall are out again,” seems simple enough. However it would be thoughtless to gloss over the word “omens.” Omens don’t merely indicate an apparent reality but portend an invisible future; they prophesy—something good or bad—to come. Of course, that which is coming is winter: this stripping of summer regalia down to bare bark and branches foretells the desolations of a starker season. And since trees have little use for omens it presages something of our own end. So with this portentous sense we move on to the next line where

We sit in the park with our feet bedded in leaves.

Though a little peculiar, it is possible to picture people at a park bench with their feet in small piles of leaves. It is, more likely, a hint toward a deeper identification that will reveal itself slowly. For now, let’s think about the great bird poems in this tradition like Ode to a Nightingale, The Darkling Thrush, and Come In. They all take place in or near the woods. But Dennis is a suburban poet of the late 20th and early 21st centuries. We don’t frequently live near dark woods anymore. Instead, we go to the park. And that is where we are. What is more peculiar about this poem is that the speaker isn’t alone. It’s “we” who sit in the park. It is another break with tradition. Perhaps Dennis is simply honest enough to allow someone else in on this moment, admitting, as we sometimes aren’t willing to, that we would rather not face the dark autumn and winter days alone. But more telling is that nightingales and thrushes are solitary birds, as are poets, at least when they’re composing. But on the larger stage, poets sing in the context of culture, hoping to be heard by others. This break with tradition is a comment on that desire, a desire that the second stanza, and ultimately the whole poem, says more about.

Before moving on, let’s consider the word “bedded” in this line. It stands out because it’s not the obvious word choice. “Buried” is likely what any of us would have chosen in describing this moment to someone. Since the poems of this tradition are all about death in some way, “buried” would have been a heavy-handed word. Besides, death is strewn all around in the discarded leaves. This freed Dennis to choose the more interesting word “bedded.” Its horticultural significance is “to plant in or as in a bed.” This suggests that his feet are planted in the leaves, rooted, we might say, like trees. It hints that the speaker and his companion, indeed, are trees. Although maybe this is a stretch. Perhaps it’s best to see if that emerges again later.

The wind widens,
The sun grows small
Warnings that friends should band together
For joint defenses before the end.
Now it seems foolish for anyone
To grow cold alone.

Added to the omens of leaves are now the widening wind and the shrinking sun. These warnings suggest we should “band together,” gather with our friends so we don’t “grow cold alone.” That last phrase can’t help but call to mind the body of the recently deceased growing cold. Also, embedded in the word “cold” is “old.” That’s what the speaker is getting at, is possibly a little too fearful to simply say. But we all feel it: “no one wants to grow old and die alone.” Then there is that word “now,” which introduces it. It echoes strangely, weighs in the mind and kicks up in its dust Keats’s line when he finally declares, “Now more than ever seems it rich to die.” Both lines are contemplating death or at least the imminence of death. But Keats, in isolation, listening to the nightingale, in the wake of his brother Tom’s death only a few months prior, longs to escape the world of suffering. Dennis’ speaker, on the other hand, is contemplating the autumn leaves and reflects on his own aging condition as a corollary, an old poet in the wake of what he has done with his life. His speaker is less oppressed but is, ultimately, no less doubtful of his condition. At least, that is the case by the end.

You want me to turn and notice you
But I look inside.

This is the pivotal moment in the poem. We’ve just left off considering that it’s “foolish for anyone/To grow cold alone.” The companion’s desire is now to be noticed, which implied the companion’s noticing the speaker. Perhaps his companion is another poet, maybe a younger poet wanting the attention of an elder. But the speaker is only human and turns “inside.” The period following “inside” pivots the entire work into the speaker’s psyche. Why the speaker turns inward, from his companion, after not wanting to be alone seems less a consequence of self-importance and more a natural turn, a result of the speaker’s aging, and dreading what his future might be. The omens of that future are all around, as the opening told us. The leaves about him are as much evidence of his age as of his accomplishment. One is tempted to think of him as Yeats’s old man who is “a tattered coat upon a stick,” which is also very subtly a tree image. In old age it’s natural to take account of life and one’s achievements. So the speaker turns inward and what does he find there?

There I can see bare branches
With a single bird
Peering out at the litter of fall.

This is a description not of the outer landscape but the inner landscape. The speaker is now explicitly comparing himself to a tree with bare branches and a single bird in its nest. In the course of his life he has stopped and wondered “what have I done?” And there is the “litter of fall,” the remains of all his summer efforts. The final two lines come in this context:

He has built his nest too high in the tree
Or too small.

The bird-poet has failed in some way. The poet has either aimed too high, beyond his powers, or forced great work into a vehicle it couldn’t bear. It is peculiar that Dennis’ bird never sings or we should say, is never heard. It’s another break with tradition. Where all other solitary poets hear their birds singing, Dennis simply observes him sitting silently in his nest, “peering out at the litter of fall.” It’s as if the bird is the soul of the tree and all the scattered leaves are the text of his poetic undertaking. It’s a poet at the end of his effort looking over his work and dreading that what he has accomplished will not survive.

But this poem is not just in the tradition of bird poems. It is, really, a hybrid of the bird poems in poetic tradition and the tree poems in poetic tradition, those such as Frost’s “Tree at My Window,” Hopkins “Spring & Fall,” or Edward Thomas’s “The Green Roads.” In fact, “The Green Roads” is very much a precursor to Dennis’ poem. The symbolism of both bird and tree are balanced equally in the thematic development. And both are dark in their conclusions. The oak at the center of Thomas’ poem is dead and “saw the ages pass in the forest.” Near the end he declares, “all things forget the forest/Excepting perhaps me.” That is, the poet remembers and as children of Mnemosyne that is, of course, their job: to remember. In Thomas’ poem, goose feathers strewn the ground, taking the place of Dennis’ leaves. In this way, Dennis more thoroughly integrates the imagery and themes. Then the way Dennis’ poem aligns the psyche of the poet with that of the tree also harkens back also to Shelley’s Ode to the West Wind, which is not a tree poem but is another poem in which the poet compares himself to a tree. It’s enlightening to see what Shelley says:

Make me thy lyre, even as the forest is:
. . . What if my leaves are falling like its own?
The tumult of thy mighty harmonies

. . . Will take from both a deep autumnal tone,
Sweet though in sadness. Be thou, Spirit fierce,
. . .My spirit! Be thou me, impetuous one!

Shelley goes on to transform the West Wind from the opening “breath of Autumn’s being” into a “trumpet of prophesy” of the coming spring. But where Shelley insists on an optimistic close, Dennis shows the inevitable loneliness and danger in poetic aspirations. The bird has spent himself and he sits in the bare tree in a nest that is too high or too small. But now that the bird-poet has cast his efforts into the world, to the wind, he can do nothing more. This is the end of the line, what he has done with his life cannot be undone or redone. Whether his accomplishments will resonate in history is beyond his power to control or influence. He can only continue to sit, “peering out at the litter of fall.”

Poems in this tradition are typically dark and melancholy. Dennis’ poem keeps with this tradition. Hardy’s poem hints at a failure beyond individual death, toward a failure of the poetic tradition itself. Keats’s ode splits the psyche of the speaker from the bird in a way that suggests the hope to escape suffering is only a dream. Dennis’ speaker too has little or no hope, for there is no way of knowing that our words will survive us, even if we are a great poet. Shakespeare assumed immortality in writing as long as there were people to read and said, “So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see,/So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.” Dennis can’t make such an assumption. It is not modesty as much as a modern condition. In our age, we are all too aware that we are ever on the brink of annihilation. And even without that, we are a scientific age with a perspective on time that stretches so far in both directions, for the most part, it doesn’t include us. We know there are billions of years ahead of us into which our small world will drift and disintegrate. But in the poem, in its small world, even if we pull back into the shorter arc of our own culture and history, think of all those dead leaves again and the double-entendre they are: both the poet’s life-long efforts and the efforts of other aspiring poets. It is a landscape cluttered with hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of voices shouting for attention.

In a bookstore with a well-read friend, I pointed out a collection of poetry by Juan Ramón Jiménez. He didn’t know who it was. Jimenez won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1956. In the vast litter of leaves, of books and even great voices, who is to say even another great one will be noticed or remembered? And in the vast cosmic time, our little planet will be like a decaying leaf when our own sun swells to a red giant and engulfs it. Dennis’ poem doesn’t question the success of the poetic endeavor, the simple writing and publishing, but rather it questions its endurance, whether it will be heard in time regardless of its current success. In the tradition of this kind of poem, the speaker is always someone who is hearing and listening to the song, hearing the poet-bird speak. Dennis’ poem doubts the inherent assumption that the poet’s voice will rise from the scattered remains and be heard. It is a poem foreboding an eternal silence. For where the poet’s voice goes unheard, there is no one to lift us out of the gaping mouth of oblivion.

Loren Kleinman HeadShot

At Fifteen

I measured time in cigarettes.
Underneath the underpass
I popped reds
and dropped blues
next to sucked off Popsicle sticks.
I straddled the concrete curb
and anointed the night with love.
I was alive—
snorting coke in abandoned homes
where pigeon shit painted the floor white.
I ripped off loose wood and climbed
to the top of the roof.
I wanted to feel the air
against my cheeks and fuck.
I wanted to break in half.
Fold like heaven and hell.
I was at war with myself.
At fifteen, I hummed paradise,
became those streets that tied
into other streets,
became my own country.
How I talked.
I could’ve been anyone.
I was incurable.

_______________________________________
Loren Kleinman‘s poetry has appeared in journals such as Nimrod, Wilderness House Literary Review, Paterson Literary Review, Narrative Northeast and New Jersey Poets. Her interviews appeared in IndieReader, USA Today and The Huffington Post. She is the author of Flamenco Sketches and Indie Authors Naked, which was an Amazon Top 100 bestseller in Journalism in the UK and USA. Her second poetry collection The Dark Cage Between My Ribs releases March 2014 (Winter Goose Publishing). She is currently working on a literary romance novel, This Way to Forever. She also runs an author interview series on The Huffington Post Books community blogs vertical. Loren’s website is: lorenkleinman.com. She can also be found twittering @LorenKleinman.

 

 

 

For years I was practicing trans-disciplinary methods without anyone telling me, but now that the experts have discovered this sort of pont-consciousness (what I always called building bridges between disciplines). They are already defining it, and making it rule bound and snot-assed for academic consumption. So I am for the motley, and for what I will call cone scenting, and the experts will deride my definition.

Any real learning is contingent upon judicious digression. Digression in so far as it does not favor method driven process always meets with derision and censor. That’s how you know it is good digression.

Trans-disciplinary studies appear on the surface to favor pont-consciousness, but it is far from any real motliness because, far from wanting leaps, it wants dogged and processed focus between disparate disciplines: This means it wants to extend specialization into the realms of inter-disciplinary discourse where it does not belong. In short, it wants to ruin pont-consciousness by making it a specialized new discipline under the guise of branch learning. It wants to take the intuitive and kill it by algorithmic methodology. I was, at first, excited by trans-disciplinary studies. I am now afraid of it. So let me point out my premises:

1.Cone scenting is what a dog does when he seems to meander from side to side down the street. He keeps the scent central and fixed, by making a kinetic “cone” around it. The scent of true learning is that which favors a meandering–a dog’s nose.

This avoids what Thorstein Veblen called trained incapacity–a training so fixed on one thing and a method of seeing that no adaptation or flex is possible. In so far as trans-disciplinary studies seek to be respected for focus and methodology (in order to be seen as respectable) it fails miserably at good cone scenting. it rules out meandering–and that is a fatal error.

2. True learning occurs when both connects and disconnects are seen as equally provisional: nothing joins or adheres fully, and nothing is so disparate that it does not share some sort of baseline connection.

This allows both for fishing in wild streams (finding the connection between a blue jay feather and a rock on Mars) and questioning the methodology of the given and the categorical–which is, to me, the true aim of education: to enable a mind to intuit connection between disparate things (new metaphors, new bridges) while at the same time being able to intelligently question the structures and edifices built upon old metaphors of the categorical that may no longer suffice. Trans-disciplinary studies insists the disconnects be yoked together by a methodology. It is no more a friend of intuition than any other system. It believes system can replace judicious accident and the cultivation of continual and ongoing stumbling. Stumbling is the essence of discovery and learning. I see here, as with all pedagogy tied to power, the lust to remove ability and replace it with motion-study and mechanics. This would kill what I have been promoting all my life rather than aiding it.

3. Connections between disparate fields, methods and ways of seeing the world must remain undetermined to the degree that they do not become merely another form of determinism and authoritarian non-thinking. In effect, most of the meandering must be left as meandering with a “perhaps,” a strong perhaps attached.

I read Belly’s “St Petersburgh,” and listen to Ethel Merman sing “I Had A Dream.” I go for a walk and discover a blue flower with a yellow center growing up through a crack in the sidewalk. I find out it’s a day flower–native to China. I go home and play the piano for an hour. I do not try too hard to make a connection between these wildly disparate acts and experiences. I trust that the cone might yield a true scent between them sooner or later. I gather and I trust that gathering is, in and of itself, a worthwhile thing. One day, I make an analogy between the eco-rhetoric of invasive species (day flowers are invasive species) and the right wing rhetoric against immigration: this leads me to a contemplation on the dangers of any concept of purity. Ethel Merman’s imperfect but unforgettable voice is contrasted with the now fully trained, fully undistinguished “Broadway voice” of academic theatre programs. How is difference made uniform toward a “purity” or tyranny of semiotics: the Broadway voice, the slam voice, fry voice–all the indicators of meaning and power. How is the unique samed and butchered on its way to mass consumption? Now I have a broad idea called the concept of the pure and I can write several chapters on purity–including one which looks at the language of purity in speeches by radical left eco-anarchists, and radical right wing anti-immigration advocates. I can find the common ground of seemingly opposed forces, grounded in ideas of “purity.” This is not how trans-disciplinary study works. Trans-disciplinary study insists that connections be found right away. It has no patience of faith, no rigor of perhaps.

4. The dog chasing its own tail loses the yard.

In this sense all systems are utterly consumed in and with their own methodology or in and with their own process. This is what Santayana called occupational psychosis. Academics are very intelligent. They know bridges must be formed between disparate forms of learning and disciplines, but they attempt to build these bridges with materials of jargon and protocol that are antithetical to the very idea of bridges. They try to hammer in a nail with a blowtorch. Again, the thing is to leave the methods and standards home and believe that one is moving “toward” a standard and methodology–the toward is always more vibrant and thought provoking than the at. To be at a standard or method is to be fixed–to be without flux. It is comfortable. people love being comfortable. Nothing kills learning more efficiently than fixed “methods.” They offer a necessary obstacle. The true value of most academics is that it offers a worthy obstacle to learning which one, if one is so inclined, finds brilliant ways to overcome.

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.

Cassette Sonnet [click to continue…]

One of the hardest things to do is to get students to notice the world beyond feelings and abstractions. Feelings and abstractions seem significant. A dolphin balancing a ball on its nose is novel, but so what? Dolphins are of the moment, and although our annoying culture drones on that we should live in the moment, we are mostly lying.

Many ardent “poets” don’t like the world of details all that much because a.) they think it’s no big deal (they never know how boring it might be to read the 100th my lover is an asshole, but I’m her slave poem), or b.) for all intents and purposes, their neurotic parents have cheated them of what is really of value in this world beyond grades, careers, and belief systems (dry stuff, all that).

We say God is in the details and then we spend most of our time avoiding both details and God. Tonight, after a reading, I was parked at a Hess station and I noticed this bush at its edge. Brown leaves were shivering at its center, and a sparrow, who had no business being visible this late at night, sat hunkered down, away from the wind, not very different than a vagrant with a bottle of Hurricane. He would have been lost in the camouflage of his brown and grey and dirty buff had there not been the rather lurid light of the station reaching casually into his kingdom. The fretwork of dried out stems was intricate, the way it is in certain sketches of by Hans Holbein. But I wasn’t thinking of Hans. I was thinking this was beautiful, and all the more beautiful for coming at me in the middle of a gas stop. Either because I am urban and nature must ambush me or because I am contrary, I have never liked “officially” beautiful scenery. I was bowled over and pointed the scene out to my wife who grew up in a pretty rural town and is accustomed to nature looking well, appropriately scenic–not awing her in the middle of a Hess parking lot. I didn’t belabor the point, knowing through years of experience, that my weird bouts of transport are not truly exportable.

I wondered what the hell the bird was doing there–so late, so visible, and without his flock. Birds huddle together for warmth. Perhaps they were migrating, and this particular sparrow went off course, but I know Eurasian tree sparrows stick it out in winter. Was he an outcast? Was he having a midlife crisis? Was he sick, and wanting the privacy of dying alone? Or best of all, did fate place him there so that, in the middle of my normal doings, I could be reminded of just how amazing the seen world is?

Perhaps I am old and stupid and am not that far removed from a senile nun with the world’s largest collection of Plaid stamps. Perhaps I am too easily delighted by what I consider awe-inspiring. I know only that I was grateful for this vision and went away from the Hess station the way other, more sensible mortals drive out of national parks. If I was in a national park and saw an Elk, I’d be happy, but no more happy than I was to see this out-of-place sparrow hunkering down in the center of a bush beside the green and white Hess station.

I am echoing Williams, who, among other things, is the great poet of sparrows seen in bushes outside gas stations. We do not take him seriously because, being snobs, we want our nature to be appropriately set (as per Mary Oliver). We really don’t care for nature. We care for what it might give us in all the expected ways–but Williams was the wiser poet. In his poem, “January Suite,” he says it’s the strange hours we keep, the sudden joy of noticing a thing on the fly that makes it beautiful. He claims the dome of The Paulist Fathers outside Paterson was as thrilling to him as St. Peter’s Basilica after years of anticipation. I believe him.

Detail, especially the unexpected and perfect detail at the unexpected moment, is the neglected mother of us all, the mother who does all the drudge work and who is never noticed until, perhaps, in the poverty of our lives, we see her crossing the street at dusk, see the brown bag clutched in her hand, and remember she is our mother. No parent says to a child, “I want you to be ready at all times to be stunned out of your intelligence and brought halt and stupefied before the covenant of your own eyes. I want you to notice how traffic lights are so much more vivid before it snows. I want you to remember, for the rest of your life, the sound of my voice in a yard when I called out your name through the dusk. Please. I want you to be truly human. With all my heart. I want your consciousness to win over everything that attempts to murder you.”

These things will not make the child successful. They are, as the utilitarians say, a waste of time. Yet all that we do, all the machinations of our finest plans are so we might “waste” time instead of being wasted by it.

I will give you a little story about a teaching experience I had that pleased me as much as that Hess station Sparrow.

I had a sweet student, in my early years of teaching, who had a great love of books and poetry and hardly any talent. I taught her what a cliché was. I taught, and I admonished. I tried so hard, and so did she, painfully hard, so hard that she reminded me of the tormented student ripping his paper in Joyce, and it broke my heart because I had always wanted to be a great baseball player and I sucked. She was writing lines like:

I know he doesn’t love me. Dying,
pretending not to care, throbbing with hurt fear.
Yet his ashen cruelty takes my breath away.
and I succumb to his worst intentions.

She was not being flip or dadaist. She was being heartbroken, untalented and sixteen.

At first, I forbade her writing about love, and she obeyed me, but it was for naught. Finally, I sat down with her, and spoke of this “cruel” boy. He was a lanky, athletic, inarticulate kid with a pierced ear, and a gloomy countenance, a sure bet to make such a sweet girl an idiot. I asked her to remember one thing he did she thought was cute. She said, when he first courted her, he would hide shyly under cover of his hoody and run his long slender index finger over the bridge of his nose like playing a violin. I said: that’s it! Connect that image to your feelings of being forgotten and bring it to me on Monday. On Monday she came in all excited. She had written:

You no longer draw your finger like a bow
across the hard and freckled bridge of your nose,
no longer play the shyness of your face,
that awkward tune I loved.
Now you look me straight in the eye,
without bow, without fear, without love
and you lie.

Ladies and gentlemen, I danced. If I could have purchased a golden laurel wreath and placed it on her head, I would have done so gladly. She didn’t understand my excitement. She instinctively knew she had written something beyond her usual powers. To see that sort of moment is better than seeing a sparrow or an elk. For me, it was like the first time Helen Keller spelled out the word “water.” I went home and tried to explain this joy to my then lover who said “so what?” My wife never says so what. She is a good poet. She teaches. When someone has done something beyond their powers she comes home and tells me, and I love her all the more because I understand she has just seen her own sparrow at the Hess station.

To be a teacher is to be a midwife. You bring the child to bear. You stay up all night. If things go wrong, you question yourself. You want to have an open sesame for every soul you encounter. You want something to open in them and for them, and when you are at your best, you don’t care if they ever say thank you. This girl continued to be only fair to middling compared to my other gifted students, but years later, she still reads poetry. She has two children and a dog, and she can’t remember why that lanky boy broke her heart, or, if she remembers, she laughs. The gifted students are the elk in the park and I am grateful to them, but I am, perhaps, partial to the sparrows. I don’t know what they are doing there, without a flock, and huddled alone.

We say “show, don’t tell,” but this is a lie. We should say, “All true showing will tell, and all true telling will contain a sparrow, and, in the middle of doing what you need to do, you will waste time, and you will notice what makes you human beyond all the lies we tell.”

An Invitation (Horace’s Ode i.20)

Cheap wine, Maecenas! You’ll drink cheap wine from cheap cups,
our local Sabine swill. I pitched the Grecian jar myself, and filled it with wine

I made. I laid it in my cellar that day when you entered your theater
after a long sickness. Yes, Maecenas, the people saw you and cheered

and the echoes filled Rome, your Tiber trembled and the Vatican hills shook. Yes,
Maecenas, it’s true–you’ve drank the crushed grapes of Calenia and Caecuba.

You’ve had Falernia and Formia–better wine than my cups should ever dirty.


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Micah Towery‘s poetry and translations appear in magazines like Cimarron Review, Paterson Literary Review, Ragazine.cc, and Loaded Bicycle, and an interview with Tom Sleigh will be appearing in an issue of The Writer’s Chronicle soon. He teaches at Trinity Western University and tweets @micahtowery. In past lives he was a baker, church organist, and Coca-Cola delivery driver.

Around ten years ago, at a small dinner party thrown by my friend and mentor, Edie Eustace, I had the pleasure of meeting Sweet Sue Terry, a composer and Jazz saxophonist, who does a rather remarkable thing with poems: she sets them word for word, actually, often syllable for syllable to note values. The word “value” is important here. Sue has both a composer’s sense of structure, and a jazz improviser’s sense of immediate invention, so we are getting a professional composer with major league chops doing a close reading of a poem. In this case, it was “Hurt Hawks” by Robinson Jeffers (A poem you ought to know, and if you don’t shame on you). Sue Terry also reads poetry, writes it occasionally, and came at the poem in a fresh way, unsullied by pretensions as to its purity. She had made copies of Hurt Hawks and handed them out (this was after dinner as we all sat in Edie’s very comfortable living room) Since I had memorized the poem many years ago, I only had to glance here or there at what was now “the score.”

I am a decent pianist–not great. I taught myself to play by ear, and spent most of my youth composing songs, fake Bach pieces, mock Chopin. I have some talent for composition, and for making out of tune pianos sound good. At one point, I made a very precarious living playing piano in a couple bars, one of which was run by a coke fiend who had a driver pick me up for the gig three times a week. The driver turned out to be a rapist.

So I know a good musician when I hear one–not just a chops specialist, not just a technician, but someone who can bring out whatever serves the music, whose improvisations add to it, whose sense of creativity is not just a form of showing off runs. Sweet Sue Terry was on this order. She was not just playing a musical tribute to a poem she loved; she was reading, literally reading the score of that poem as her audience read along with her–word for word, syllable for syllable, and unlike many collaborations between music and poetry that was written with no music in mind, this worked. It did more than worked. For a good month after the dinner party, I would take out Robinson Jeffers’ great poem, and sit, recalling whatever I could of Terry’s lines. Her musical setting, or rather her musical Reading” of the poem had a profound and lasting effect on what I knew could be done with music and poetry.

Let me be blunt: most collaborations between music and poetry hurt both the poem and the music. There are several reasons for this:

1. Poets, unlike band members are rather timid about being thought “entertaining.” They don’t perform. Ah… but Sweet Sue was not performing that day, either–she was living in intimate relationship to the poem. She was reading it. So let’s go a little deeper: most poets do not truly read their poems–not closely. They stand up there rehashing them, failing to enter their own text. “reading” out loud is a hybrid art between the public barbaric yawp and the secret utterance. This means a poet must find a ceremony somewhere between being alone in his or her consciousness, and projecting that consciousness outward–like a prayer. It does not have anything to do with being introverted or extroverted, friendly, or taciturn. It is all about destroying those distinctions so that the compound of intimate consciousness and public performance becomes “presence.” Now, many people who fancy themselves experts on reading or playing and cannot apprehend true presence, but, most people, who are not arrogant about their expertise, know when they encounter it. I watched a group of bored teenagers at the last Dodge festival be transformed in an old Baptist church by the “presence” of Marie Ponsot. It was not long after her stroke. Her voice was clear, but weak. She had to pluck her words slowly from the tree of consciousness. She was everything you might think would be a nightmare to young students committed to being bored, but she created a presence. It did not patronize. It did not play to the cheap seats. It blew, and the spirit of its breath gave something greater than entertainment: it gave welcome, on its own terms, without stooping. This is the reason most poets stink at performing with musicians. It does not matter if they are as extroverted as Al Jolson (think Bly on a bad day) or introverted: they are not present. This is more egregious than failing to perform. Billy Holiday did not perform. Lester Young did not perform. When they did perform, it was to serve the presence–not to replace it. Without presence, you can walk the bar all you want, and the vulgar will mistake this for true worth, but you will hurt both the music and the poem.

2. Poets who read to music, often don’t know music well enough to interact with it. We all think we know music, and it’s true–but knowing it, and interacting with it are very different. I once asked a musician friend of mine why he was so in love with Count Basie’s piano playing. He conceded that Art Tatum had far greater skills, but his fantasy was to be alone in a bar and have the ghost of Basie come and play. He said: “Art Tatum could play more notes, faster, and better than anyone with the possible exception of Jesus of Nazareth, but the Count sat out. He knew how to sit out. He knew what not and when not to play, and if you could hear his sitting outs, you’d realize they were the equal of Tatum’s sitting ins.”

Poets, if they are going to perform with bands, need to work more on sitting out than anything else. How do I allow the music to enter, and when do I blow? What’s the ratio? If I’m reading to a blue’s piece, how can I give propers to the 12 bar blues with my free verse structures? How do I go in and out of the beat, vary my speeds, enter in such a way that people are not just hearing my poem over the music, but are hearing my poem within the music? How do I sit out? A poet bad at this is like a lounge singer. Sometimes, the musicians just play the changes and pretend he or she is not there. It’s important, if you are going to read poems to music, to learn when to shut up. You need to know where the words and the music could come in together without either being diminished. This takes practice, as much practice as it takes to learn the writing of poetry or the playing of an instrument..

3. Poets are often both snobs in the wrong way (My poems are too perfect to be done with music) and egalitarian in the wrong way (I want to be a frggin’ rock star). An audience does not like a snob (unless it is full of snobs). An audience also dislikes slavishness. I thought spoken word was much better when the slam artists didn’t memorize their texts. I liked the tension between reading it yet performing it. Now I see a bunch of actors up there, doing what actors do–especially bad actors. I can’t go to a slam without getting angry, and I have a terrible Irish temper. I sit there thinking : “If you touch your thorax, then put your arms out one more time to show me how sincere you are, I’m going to slit your throat with the sharp edge of a judge’s card.” I am not a page poet, but I believe in the page. A body that is trained to not be itself is not a body. Good performers use their flaws–not just some template of a body work shop.

I believe poets can benefit from reading to music, even if they won’t do so in public, just to find a presence in their voices–something beyond either the idiocy of academics who want to down play all performance, and the idiocy of slammers who don’t understand the difference between presence and performance. What’s the difference? Listen to Count Basie or Billy Holiday or Lester Young. The difference is the whole of the sky.

What should we make of Plato’s old quarrel between philosophy and poetry? Does poetry think with philosophy? Or might we re-pose the question: does poetry rely on philosophy to think?

For Plato, the poem is dangerous for philosophy as it forbids access to the supreme truth, the truth that provides unity with the ultimate principle that allows the Republic to maintain its transparency.  The problem of poetry for Plato is deeper than that though.  It rests on the fact that mimesis is always tied to discursive thought, and this blocks reason and teleology in grounding the truth.  For Plato, the poem is opposed to the ideal of a perfect means for the transmission of knowledge, and hence is dangerous for philosophy.

Wallace Stevens declared the modern poet a “metaphysician in the dark, who must give sounds passing through sudden rightness, wholly / containing the mind, below which it cannot descend, beyond which it has no will to rise.”   The battleground of the poem becomes the poets mind.  But Stevens doesn’t give us clear sense of the relation between philosophy and poetry, he suggests that the poet is isolated to a performance of thinking in the poem.  In this post, I want to introduce the ideas of two prominent French philosophers working on the intersection of philosophy and poetry.  Judith Balso and Alain Badiou’s present two concepts of philosophy and poetry’s separation from poetry, the idea of presence, and the affirmation, that reveals that poetry indeed does not rely on philosophy for grounding its own truth.

Judith Balso has created a conception of poetry’s relationship to philosophy that helps us understand both Plato’s fear of poetry, and Stevens’ relegation of the modern poet to the dark recesses of the mind.  For Balso, modern poetry consists in the creation of a new space for thought and imagination that does not simply seek to criticize what exists; but that invents an entirely new ontological capacity for thinking.  In this sense, poems are more than merely artistic events for aesthetic contemplation; they are events for thought, for a new kind of thinking.  This theory of poetry, Balso refers to as the affirmation, and its based on a close reading of Heidegger’s work on philosophy and art, particularly his Elucidations of Holderlin’s Poetry, but she is suspect of Heidegger, and opts to put Holderlin into dialogue with other poets instead of locking Holderlin inside the discourse of philosophy alone as Heidegger does.

Balso’s intellectual and romantic partner, Alain Badiou, (in a way they are reminiscent of Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre of the 20th century), poetry presents a truth that is outside of philosophy’s capacity to integrate it.  Alain Badiou is probably France’s most influential anti-postmodernist philosopher.  In his book on philosophy, poetry, and art, Handbook of Inaesthetics, he claims that the legacy of Plato in modern poetry is alive and well, but that it functions like a ‘persisting nostalgia for the idea’. Every poetic truth in the poem, Badiou claims, is located in an unnamable core at the poems center that does not have the power to bring the idea into presence. He refers to this nostalgia for the idea as ‘presence’.

Pessoa offers an interesting example of this nostalgia for the idea in his poetic project, which he characterizes as ‘anti-metaphysical poems’.  For Pessoa, the idea of presence functions in the relation between the world and its representation in the poem.  He says, “when you see a thing in the poem, it is exactly the thing.”  The world becomes that thing whose presence is more essential than objectivity. As Stephane Mallarmé claims, the modern poem is centered on the dissolution of the object from its purity.

For Badiou, this play of presence in poetry gives poetry a privileged ground for the production of new truths by enabling truth to develop within the poem itself.  The poem produces a singularity for which philosophy cannot account for.  Each poem offers a singular type of truth, occurring as a sort of event.  Similar to Balso’s notion of the affirmation, the poem is like a decision of presenting oneself to the present.  The poem offers the possibility for the creation of a new space for thought and imagination that does not simply seek to criticize what exists; but that invents an entirely new ontological capacity.  In this sense, poems are more than merely artistic events for aesthetic contemplation; they are events for thought, for a new kind of thinking.

Presence, the affirmation, or the nostalgia for the Platonic idea occurs in the immediacy of the poem itself, not through an artistic expression of the world, but as an operation. The poem’s operation is the vehicle for thinking, a thinking that is internal to the practice, a thinking of thinking itself.

If we visit Pessoa’s poetic project briefly, we see both this idea of the affirmation and presence in action.  Pessoa’s poems are diagonal, like a Cubist painting. They look directly into the light, in an anti-Platonic stance; they are opposed to any absolute idea.  Badiou suggests that the operation of the poem for Pessoa is tied to a hidden mathematical code that philosophy can’t yet integrate or fully understand.  As we see in this untitled piece by one of Pessoa’s over 80 heteronym’s Alberto Caeiro, the poem’s idea of presence contained within the poem alone becomes apparent.

To see the fields and the river
It isn’t enough to open the window.
To see the trees and the flowers
It isn’t enough not to be blind.
It is also necessary to have no philosophy.
With philosophy there are no trees, just ideas.
There is only each one of us, like a cave.
There is only a shut window, and the whole world outside,
And a dream of what could be seen if the window were opened,
Which is never what is seen when the window is opened.

This paradoxical play of a “metaphysics subtracted from metaphysics” in Pessoa enables poetry to enter into a new ontology of truth, and ultimately, a new relation to the Platonic idea.  Pessoa himself had a great depth of understanding of philosophy, and this may be in part why he continues to baffle our preconceptions and confuse any possibility of developing a coherent way to place Pessoa’s contribution to modernity.

What is at stake in the quarrel between poetry and philosophy is still a very Platonic question.  The poetic perspective opened up through the idea of presence represents an opening of thought to the principle of the thinkable, where thought must be absorbed in the grasp of what establishes it as thought – i.e. in the poem itself.  Yet the modern poet, as Celan tells us, must still wrestle with the recognition that the whole is actually nothing.