Sunday, June 28, 2009

On The Other Hand

Truth is what happens when a politician gets caught. It's generally called mis-speaking. Obama's off-the-cuff remarks about the unemployed turning to God and guns to vent their frustration may have scored highest on the truth meter during the campaign. Had he known it was being recorded his words would have been attenuated to some more limp rhetoric. Governor Sanford's tearful disclosure was just the latest in a procession of public apologies. Again we were treated to a rare display of authenticity, however brief. A momentary glimpse of the real person slipping away from his persona. I've just about given up on Sunday morning panel discussions. Each of the guests bloviating according to script; hedging, dodging, mouthing the talking points in the prescribed manner. Repetitive phrases numb the ear and the eye the way repetitive motion acts; carpel tunnel vision. Our collective knee jerks when we hear that word, taxes. Or someone dares mention a public option to healthcare. As if libraries and traffic lights spell Socialism. As everyone knows Medicare trumps all the Blues from Shield to Cross. Let this be a plea for truth-telling. Not an ultimate or literal Truth sculpted in gospel stone, and not an abstract notion with a hollow ring but a contextual truth with all its increments of gray. We know it when we hear it.

Friday, June 26, 2009

The Poet As Conjurer

If a poet qualifies his poem saying that he just wrote it starting in the shower this morning then worked on it on the back of a napkin at MacDonald's and finished it in the dust on his dashboard the chances are he's actually been working on it for months.

If he announces that he does his writing at mid-night over a six-pack he probably writes at noon over a glass of milk

It's all part of myth-making at the expense of the literal Maybe another way of saying that what passes for truth is part of convention; an agreed-upon lie. And convention exists within those margins which we rail against or at least challenge. Poetry is subversive. It assumes what the collective sees and says consider this instead.

The poem also overthrows the order with its misbehaving syntax, lack of punctuation or phrases that are not quite sentences or even invented language.

I happily lie in the poem as a way of getting to an emotional truth. I write about sneaking into a Saturday matinee movie through the side door in order to feel like one of the Dead-End Kids on the screen or speak of the usher's flashlight as if it were the searchlight on the prison wall of the Cagney movie I'm watching.

The imagination works best, untethered. Let it roam, stretch and contort. When the optometrist gets into my face in the dark room with his, better now or now, I am breaking down ready to confess to anything from sneaking into a Multiplex to road rage on the freeway.

"It's hard to get the news from poetry," W.C. Williams said, "but every day people die from lack of it." With a surfeit of news stuffing our brain there still remains a hunger for some other substance where disbelief can be suspended so our boat might be rowed to Eden or the choppy seas where pirates lurk ready to pounce on our cargo of over-ripe melon and stale bread.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Further, Father

All my male friends had one and most of us are one. Not only have we fathered our children but consider all the fathering we've done in our time as we shepherd others along in this long distance run with our stumbling, bumbling wisdom. Parenting is that unrehearsed piece of theatre called life fraught with mis-steps, forgotten lines and audience grumbles but also some rave reviews.

After watching two seasons of "In Treatment" I've come away with the sense that we are where the bread crumbs lead. Most of Gabriel Byrne's patients seem to be products of rotten fathers. Ah ha, so you say you love your father!. We'll see about that.

(Having put in those italics I now can't seem to get rid of them)

Like it or not we are half the team of unprepared sculptors who shape the clay even as we are shaping ourselves. Who knew the clay was so soft and our mark do indelible.

Inept as I am at hunting or fishing with no natural affinity for pipes or power tools I sympathize with my daughters looking for a Father's Day card that fits. They've done very well over the years finding open books, trees and possibly a baseball.

Note to my daughters: If I've seemed judgmental, protective and a voice of caution just know that it comes with the job description. If I live vicariously through you from time to time that's also part of the package. I love you all and love how you have extended my fingerprints beyond my imagining. And how you know that your clay is still soft.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

To Rhyme Or To Not

Rhyme has been out of fashion in poetry since it was ceded to songwriters. And with good reason, I believe. Cole Porter was as good as they come but he was no poet, even with his bees and educated fleas. I submit he had the music but not the concision and imaginative leaps.

To be sure there are still formalists in our midst. Donald Justice and Richard Wilbur are two highly respected ones. But most contemporary poets are not likely to be seen with a rhyming dictionary. End-rhymes went out with other rigid structures such as sonnets and heroic couplets. It may be the same reason why we don't wear suits and ties on airplanes and so much music is atonal.

Most of us regard Walt Whitman as our antecedent, followed perhaps by Wallace Stevens,
William Carlos Williams and Allen Ginsberg. All of them wrote in free verse.

Ironically the art of poetry has a paucity of words to distinguish its many varieties. That word "verse" is itself a term now consigned to greeting cards. Rhyming poetry is more often associated with doggerel. Indeed poetry has many permutations and they all go under the name, "poetry."

Why has rhyme fallen out of favor? I think because life itself doesn't rhyme. Our experience is
fractured, simultaneous and asymmetric. In fact rhyming lines are devoutly to be avoided by many in favor of assonance or alliteration in a limited way. Rhymes carry the whiff of levity or constricted artifact.

There is an argument that the imposition of a rhyming right-hand margin forces the poet to stretch his imagination but too often it compromises language to obey the prescribed form.
It's fair to say, however, that much poetry is moving to performance as it seeks it's roots in the oral tradition. Thus we have rap music/poetry and a return to rhyme. Putting this aside I am speaking for the poem on the page.

Freedom isn't license but poetic license makes its own demands; to cultivate one's own authentic voice without affectation and alert to the limp and bloated language all around us.

It was either I or William Stafford who once remarked that all words rhyme with each other more so than they do with silence. With this mind, as a concession to the rhymers of the world, I offer the following:

All words rhyme with each other
more than the winds and the weather
but I prefer a B-flat
from the wings of a gnat
to the marriage of mother to brother.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Some Thoughts On Poetry

The closest word is alchemy. Making something out of something else; not base to gold necessarily. More often base to base but, of course, there is no heirarchy of image or experience
in transformation.

I might start with the act of throwing a ball against a wall. The wall might turn into the outer wall of my father's drugstore and with the ferocity of my throws I make a portal into his store, his profession, his life.

I might wonder what that act of throwing a ball is all about. How it returns to my waiting hands
or how it bounces off some ledge out of my reach. How this expectation of return is re-enacted throughout my life. Or how the landing of a ball into a hoop or side pocket or an eighteenth hole
can be a metaphor for arrival and embrace.

The wall could be the one my brother drove his car into 45 years ago as if summoned to get through to the other side when he heard a piece of music not possible in this world. Or the bank of bushes I steered a sled into as a kid with two friends on my back. Or it could be the wall my deaf daughter has learned to climb or even the I scaled 25 years ago, as if dodging searchlights and hounds, to start my new life with Peggy.

In my poetry I usually start with a vivid image or even a single word which conjures a moment in time and into which I can enter and rumage around. The days I can live within the poem, outside of time and place, are my great joy. The product is less important than the process.

A few years ago I spotted a picture of my parents vacationing in upstate New York. The photo was dated June, 1932. Since this was exactly nine months before my birth I decided this must have been my time of conception and as such the first picture of me in the twinkle of my father's eye and the coquettish turn of my mother's head. Maybe. Maybe not. But it is my truth. The facts of a poem are subordinated to the truth of the fabrication.

If I'm lucky I learn something about myself in the writing. When a friend offered me some Macadamia nuts I declined without thinking because I had always said no to nuts. I sat down
to write about the interchange and was brought back to all my food dislikes. From there I was struck by other ideas I had not re-visited in many years. Where did they come from? Is it time to circle back? Is change possible and how does it happen? The poem becomes the agency for
interior exploration.

I don't mean to imply that the poem can be willed. There is nothing so daunting and at the same time exhilerating as the blank page. I sit and stare and allow a flotilla of flotsam to wash over me.
Some stay afloat, some sink. I have to hear my voice or I disown it. If it is too deliberate, too earnest, too pleading, too much like the six o'clock news, too pretty it deserves the delete key.

If I have written some lines which take me to an unexpected place and possibly of inexplicable
origin then I am very pleased. If the poem can be paraphrased perhaps it would have been better served by a paragraph.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Much-Maligned Salami

In its time salami was practically a staple. At least no less so than bologna or pastrami; part of the cold cut mix which I was sent to purchase at our local deli along with cole slaw and potato salad. This was in pre-history when people took Alka Seltzer for dessert disbelieving that they "ate the whole thing."

Over the eons we took a closer look at salami; not only at its ingredients but what held it together and preserved it. Then we broke down it's fat content, its cholesterol etc. Under closer scrutiny salami didn't stand a chance. The sodium nitrate alone sent us running.

I have now given salami its second act. Never mind the 140 fat calories and the smidge of trans-fat.

Consider this: no carbohydrates. The quick snack for that ever-swelling army of pre-diabetics
searching to fill up on some protein without consequences on their glucometer.

So hail Salami. Perfect with eggs and/or cheese ... all zero carbohydrate foods. As for the plaque it is famous for I leave that to my daily dose of statins.

Besides, it feels good to bring back a food so long driven to exile. I welcome salami to my plate as a prodigal food once thought to be good for nothing like some old friend who fell into disrepute 65 years ago and has finally found a measure of redemption.

With a PhD in salami a trained palate can discern whether it hailed from Milan or Naples or any hill town between. I'll just stay home with my Hebrew National All Beef version and live forever.