Sunday, July 29, 2007

John R. Tunis, Leadbelly, Howard Koch

What authors or books influenced you most? People are discussing this on the NewPo list, and I sat down to write about my biggest influences. Pretty soon, I realized this was getting too long for a post to a listserv, in spite of the fact that there are only three names on it. It's also probably irrelevant to a poetry list, since none of these are poets. I'll think about poet-influences next. Here are the three.

1. The baseball novels of John R. Tunis. In Tunis' novels, like The Kid From Tomkinsville, I first became aware of a writer behind the words -- I could feel someone writing it, injecting his own passion and personality into the story. I remember telling my mother one day when I was maybe 11 or 12, and had never particularly thought about growing up to be a writer, "When I grow up to be a writer, and people ask me about the greatest influence on my writing career, I'm going to say John R. Tunis. Although I didn't realize it at the tme, he was also teaching me my first lesson in telling a great, fast-paced story with vivid memorable characters, that also had a message. Tunis didn't bludgeon you with the message. In Keystone Kids, the main driving force of the novel is baseball, young shortstop Spike Russell being named player-manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers, and trying to guide his team to the pennant. but the missing ingredient is a catcher, and the Dodgers bring up a talented kid from the minors -- talented and Jewish. Spike has to deal with prejudice from teammates (this was written four years before Jackie Robinson), anti-Semitism from fans and sportswriters, and his own total lack of experience in reaching out to another culture. This is from memory, over 50 years ago. I did pick up a copy of the The Kid Comes Back at a yard sale recently, and it still held my interest. Great baseball stuff, and again, more. Roy Tucker, The Kid From Tomkinsville, now a major league veteran, enlists to fight in World War II, is injured in combat, and has to find the courage (and ultimately, a chiropractor) to get him through the injury and back to help the Dodgers in their stretch run. But before that, he's shot down in France, rescued by a Resistance group that seems more than little Communist, and Roy has to battle his own middle-American prejudice to accept these people who are saving his life. Then, he has to face the culture shock and resistance that all returning GIs must face, in that war and every other -- what Kipling talks about in "Tommy Atkins."

I realized how deep Tunis was still ingrained in me when I started to write a children's sports book for my grandson Josh, in which he and his friend go back in time and meet Pele. And I realized I was beiong drawn to do what Tunis did -- tell an exciting sports story, but never forget that it's also about something more.

2. Leadbelly, for the reasons mentioned in my last post. He first taught me about compression of words, about the power of what's left out, about saying more with less. I found Leadbelly when Probably "In the Pines" was the first song to hit me that way -- the girl whose tragedy we only glimpse, but we feel the immensity of it behind the stark, sparse words. It was only years later, when I began teaching Leadbelly's lyrics, that an important part of her tragedy hit me -- why she's lost her home, why she had to sleep in the pines. She lives in company housing in a company town, and the company takes back the house when her husband is killed in an on-the-job accident.

It was when I started teaching him, all those years later, when I put together my Literature of the Blues course, that I realized how powerful his influence still was, and had been for all of my writing life. Ashbery only provided a continuation of that influence, but more on that when I get to the list of poet-influences.

3. Howard Koch. Howard died in 1995, and I was honored to be asked to give one of the eulogies for him. Because Howard had been mentor and role model to all of those of my generation who grew up in the 50s and 60s, I made myself their voice, and collected stories and reminiscences from them. Here's one from my brother Jonathan, who recalled hearing the name of producer Howard W. Koch in connection with some current movie or other, and asking Noelle Gillmor (a name for another reminiscence), "Is Howard W. Koch the same as our Howard Koch?" Noelle replied, "The relationship between our Howard Koch and Howard W. Koch is roughly the same as the relationship between Jesus Christ and Jesus H. Christ."

But I digress, not for the first time. What I did say, for myself, at Howard's memorial, was that I knew Howard was a great man before I knew he was a great writer. I knew him for his kindness, his intelligence, his integrity, his keen and piercing insights into politics, society, and hypocrisy. So those were my first lessons in writing from Howard, and they're still among the most important that I've ever learned.

Later, I found out about Casablanca, and Sergeant York, and The Sea Hawk. And then I was probably 18, or maybe older, and already serious about becoming a writer. That's when I learned my other lesson from Howard -- that truth can have a heart, and a soul. That if something is romantic, and wonderful, and uplifting, that doesn't negate its truth -- it creates its own special kind of truth.

And there you have it.

Saturday, July 28, 2007

John Ashbery

Happy 80th birthday to John Ashbery, titan of contemporary poetry and sometime Hudson valley resident. Edward Byrne's blog has a great tribute to Ashbery, so I'll direct you there. And here's my Ashbery page.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

In Case You're Worried About Getting Older and Losing Your Edge

Thomas Hardy was in his mid-70s when he wrote this.

During Wind and Rain

They sing their dearest songs--
He, she, all of them - yea,
Treble and tenor and bass.
          And one to play;
With the candles mooning each face....
          Ah, no; the years O!
How the sick leaves reel down in throngs!

They clear the creeping moss--
Elders and juniors - aye,
Making the pathways neat
          And the garden gay;
And they build a shady seat....
          Ah, no; the years, the years;
See, the white storm-birds wing across!

They are blithely breakfasting all--
Men and maidens - yea,
Under the summer tree,
          With a glimpse of the bay,
While pet fowl come to the knee....
Ah, no; the years O!
          And the rotten rose is ripped from the wall.

They change to a high new house,
He, she, all of them - aye,
Clocks and carpets and chairs
          On the lawn all day,
And brightest things that are theirs....
Ah, no; the years, the years;
          Down their carved names the raindrop plows.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Well, That's Another Fine Isolated Verisimilitude Youve Gotten Us Into

In The End of the Mind: The Edge of the Intelligible in Hardy, Stevens, Larkin, Plath, and Gluck, DeSales Harrison credits Larkin with "pledg[ing] allegiance to the rhetoric of verisimilitude." By this he means that Larkin's
obligation is to preserve, to keep the experience "from oblivion for its own sake." This is the positive aspect of the obligation, the obligation to do something. There is a negative aspect as well, an obligation not to do something else.The poet can do no more than preserve. He cannot, Larkin implies, elevate, extrapolate, mythologize, etherealize, or transcendentalize.

Odd to define "negative" as "an obligation not to do something else." and then directly follow it with a reference to Keats. If Harrison is extrapolating from Larkin's obligation, he's extrapolating pretty far away from Keats' Negative Capability.

But Harrison is pretty much on the other side of the fence from me -- as it seems everyone else is. He puts the inability to remain content with half-knowledge on the same shelf as irritable searching after fact and reason, and says that "one reaches for those at the expense of the 'fine isolated verismilitude.'"

Franklin R. Rogers, in Painting and Poetry: Form, Metaphor, and the Language of Literature, also says that Coleridge's need for total knowledge renders him incapable of being in uncertainties, mysteries and doubts.

And I suppose there's something to these gentlemen's point. Negative Capability isn't incapability, which Coleridge apparently has. But that fine isolated verisimilitude still bothers me. Where's the Negative Incapability in letting an isolated verisimiltude, however fine, go by? Who's to say you have to irritably reach out grab every isolated verisimiltude that comes along?

This verisimilitude is isolated. If one grabs it too quickly, one loses the chance to find out if it will resonate with other verisimilitudes, maybe even some truths. "Verisimilitude" to me is still a counterfeit, something that has the appearance of truth.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Penetralia, the Verisimilar, and Sookie

I'm not sure that being taught to live in doubt and uncertainty is a significant social function, any more than Saturday morning cartoons where the villain gets blown up have an educational function in teaching kids right from wrong.

But I'm all in favor of a certain amount of doubt and uncertainty. As Keats said, once it struck me, what quality went to form a Man of Achievement especially in Literature & which Shakespeare possessed so enormously--I mean Negative Capability, that is when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason--Coleridge, for instance, would let go by a fine isolated verisimilitude caught from the Penetralium of mystery, from being incapable of remaining content with half knowledge.

This is probably a better guide to poetry than to a social contract, but it's as good a guide to poetry as one can ask for, and you hardly need me to point that out. It's the second half of it that has always intrigued me, the part about Coleridge. I had always interpreted that to mean that Coleridge was uniquely capable of remaining in in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason -- I guess that would make him uniquely . That he would not accept an isolated verisimilitude -- which I defined as something that has the appearance of truth, but not necessarily the substance. That rather than be content with half knowledge, he could maintain his equilibrium longer in doubt and uncertainty.

I have since found out that this not the accepted reading of these famous lines. The accepted reading is that Keats was criticizing Coleridge.

Here's Dan Simmons on the subject:

A lesser poet like Coleridge, Keats goes on to explain, “would let go by a fine isolated versimilitude caught from the Penetralium of mystery,” because a lesser poet (or novelist, or filmmaker, or visual artist) insists on – well, actually has no other choice -- impressing his own limited interpretation on reality.

Thomas McFarland, in The Masks of Keats: The Endeavor of a Poet, talks about "the charge [Keats] makes against [Coleridge], and I know these people are better Keats scholars than I am, and know more about the relationship between Keats and Coleridge at this point in their lives. When you get right down to it, I didn't even know that "penetralium" isn't a real word, in either English or Latin.

But I still like my reading of it. I'd better, since I've based my aesthetic on trying as much as possible to let fine isolated verisimiltudes go by. If they've escaped from the penetralium of mystery, then they're no longer one with that mystery or part of that penetralium, and I'd agree with Heisenberg here. If you catch one on the wing and measure it, you'll never measure all of it, and you'll alter it by the catching of it.

I looked up "verisimiltude." Merriam Webster Online says it's "the quality or state of being verisimilar," which I find a trifle odd, in that "verisimiltude" is a word I've actually heard or seen in a real context (I mean other than Keats), but "verisimilar" is a total unknown. Anyway, "verisimilar" means "having the appearance of truth : probable," which is pretty much what I thought. The penetralium is where the truth remains unreachable, like the Grail. The verisimilitudes that escape from it only have it's appearance.

Anyway, here's what my muse, Sookie, has to say about it.


Sookie let a fine
slide right by

I was not too pleased
it left a wake
of clear light
it might have come from the

of mystery
and I could have used it
isn’t that
her job? But there’s no
use fighting it

Sookie only believes
in her own
which she lets me
near on rare occasions

never all
the way in but it’s
what I’ve got
Sookie’s speed rack brand of
half knowledge

Sunday, July 08, 2007

First Saturdays with Krista

My opening/poetry reading at the Kingston First Saturday Art Walk was yesterday. I didn't use Lowell or Brancusi, but I did put up a few Poetry Portraits (Billy Collins, H.D., Sylvia Plath, and Carolyn Forche) along with two pages from my illustrated "La Belle Dame Sans Merci." The rest were -- are, you can still go see it? -- the usual gang of nudes and animals.

Alternative Books in Kingston is maybe not the ideal place to showcase one's art. The wall space is about two feet up near the ceiling. but it does have a charm all its own. There is virtually no walking space among the overflowing boxes of collected but not yet sorted out books. In the back room, they had set up a bunch of couches and easy chairs -- perfect for an audience of about ten people, which was actually optimistic.

Dr. Henriquez, the proprietor, had also scheduled a singer/songwriter for the same time, so I arrived with a certain amount of puzzlement. About 15 minutes after I had sorted out the poems I was going to read from the ones I wasn't, the singer/songwriter came in. Her name was Krista Weaver, and she combined a sort of Rocky Mountain High blonde and sunny energy with an East Coast sense of purpose. Two attributes I have in short supply. We introduced ourselves, and Dr. Henriquez wandered in, said "Well, I'll let the two of you work it out," and wandered back out.

While we were waiting to start, she took a quick look through one of my books, and said "I can't relate," Which got things off to a good start. Not that I expect people, especially singer/songwriters who sing the innermost secrets of their heart, to relate to what I write. Since I never sing the innermost secrets of my heart, on the theory that they'd bore me to death, so why should I expect them to have a different effect on anyone else? I said, "That's OK, my poems are on the outside edge of anyone being able to relate to them."

Of course, given how rotten my hearing is, she could well have said "I can relate."

A question I had cause to pause and consider, as the evening went on.

Anyhow...there we were, and what we were going to do next had been left to us. So I asked - "Well, what are we going to do? Who should go first?"

She said -- "I thought maybe we'd alternate -- you read a poem and then I'll sing a song that somehow relates to it."

I thought, Well, since she can't relate to my poetry, this will be a bit of a challenge, but I said "Sure, let's try it."

So 5 o'clock came and no one was there. Except for Pat (Krista had asked what the secret of a 20-year marriage was, and I told her for my part, it was simple. I was just as crazy in love with Pat still, as the day were married.)

I said, "Shall we wait a little longer?"

She said, "No, let's start."

This was another odd idea. I'd never considered reading to an audience of no one, but what the heck. So I led off with a poem. I wish I could remember which one. But in any event, she listened carefully, thought for a moment, and began a song (all the songs she sang were her own) that was an uncannily perfect commentary on my poem.

I'd done something similar to this once before. I was reading at a Saugerties art gallery with Nancy Willard, and the setup, instead of the usual chairs to the side of a lectern, was a couch in the front of the room. Nancy suggested that we do a kind of tag-team reading, answering each other back and forth. It was a magical evening, as befits a joint reading with our premiere North American magical realist, and we really did keep the ball in flight for the whole evening, each finding poems that would echo the other. We each completely changed our normal rhythm and pacing, and actually changed our repertoire -- both of us found ourselves going to poems we hadn't planned to read, or that we never read.

This evening with Krista was a little different. It wasn't so much like tennis as skeet shooting. I fired a poem up, she followed it and bagged in flight,

Which she did. Every time. I found myself varying my pace as a good skeet launcher should, sending up a poem that might be easy to connect to, then a poem that I couldn't imagine how she could lock in on.

I remember one -- I said, "This might seem like an easy subject, because it's about a girl with a guitar, but maybe not..."


When she stopped
making chords angled like
compound fractures
bone shards protruding
from ripped skin

and spun notes like long strips
of gauze dipped in
vaseline she had
left her first
husband and the guy with

the cigarette
burns on his hollow
body Gretsch
which he left behind but
she never played

but took with her to
a cabin
in the Catskills along
with a box of
hollow point bullets

the weekend
of her second wedding
katydids sang
only five more weeks
of summer

She bagged that one, with a song that had music and guns, joy and pain.

She bagged them all. She was great. We left vowing to stay in touch and do it again, and I sincerely hope we will. Anyway, here's Krista's home page, and here's a link to some of the regular Wednesday and alternate Saturday singer/songwriter jams that she hosts in Red Hook, and that I will certainly be dropping in on, -- and a complete list of her local gigs.

Monday, July 02, 2007

Delving Into the Penetralium

Jeff Newberry posts on the NewPo list, the following definition of poetry (NewPo is big on "what poetry is?", which is actually one of the things I like about it), and Anny Ballardini has collected a wealth of definitions on her Fieralingue website:

" . . . one of poetry's chief aims is to illumine the walls of mystery, the inscrutable, the unsayable. I think poetry ought to be taught not as an engine of meaning but as an opportunity to learn to live in doubt and uncertainty, as a means of claiming indeterminacy. Our species is deeply defined by its great surges of reason, but I think it high time we return to elemental awe and wonder."

--Major Jackson, "Does Poetry Have a Social Function," Poetry, January 2007
I'm not sure I think poetry should be taught any one way. I kinda like it as an engine of meaning, but of course, it's also an engine of ambiguity, so none of the meanings fired up by its internal combustion are going to be definitive, and one can continue sputtering along in doubt and uncertainty.

I was going to continue this blog entry on Keats' thoughts about doubt and uncertainty, but that last metaphor reminds me of this wonderful poem by my great mentor, Donald Finkel, so I think I'll close with it and save Keats and the penetralium for next time:

Concerning the Transmission

You might say the same of poetry:
you've sunk too much in it
to quit now, driving
good hours after bad
too much of you wound
round the wires and the hoses.

You might stop addressing
this absence beside you,
cursing through the intricate
cities, singing in high passes,
tooling down freeways,
minding the numbers,
ears pricked for oracular
tappings, limping past fields
of sullen junkers, eyeholes crawling
with nettle and goldenrod.

If you let go now, the bearings
will scream from their orbits,
the rocker arms clang in their cylinders
and the needles return to their various zeroes,
as if your hands had never clenched
this sweaty wheel.