Ditch-Digger

I’m taking today off, but I dug three days straight and you know what July in Missouri is like. Still feeling a little dizzy because of it. And, yesterday evening, if I’m honest, I felt some slight electrical seizure symptoms in my facial muscles. But I want to let you know I, too, enjoyed this physical labor. Of course I had my notebook open on a patio chair and I made poems on the two mornings I dug. Not three, since I started midday Thurs.

IMG_5169Something about the increased blood flow coursing along with my morning coffee in the back yard air really worked for me. I would receive a word, just a simple word, like slow, and sort of hold it in my head, turn it over a few times, and ruminate. Asking what relation the next word would have to the first word. Semantic relation would suggest arduous. Or may be a sonic link would give me low. Like I said, simple.

IMG_5170And in conversation with me and my shovel, the words appeared. Sometimes they came in pairs so I placed two words like planks on the same line separated by some distance. I wanted the eye to land on one by one, one after another, and greet each singly. Other times they came in spurts that were more like thoughts. Dichotomies. Paradoxes. Prayers. And these words I strung together. Chunked. And later on my computer I attempted to reproduce this process with lots of room and spaces between and among the words to encourage a more contemplative experience for the reader.

IMG_5173I feel so good about the experiment I’ve already begun to wonder how else I might incorporate the physical into my morning writing practice. One can’t always have the benefit of a ditch.

Some Notes on “Some Notes”

My friend Jordan suggested I revisit Denise Levertov’s “Some Notes on Organic Form” some time ago and I must have tried to print it because out it came a few days ago when I went to print an authorization for appraisal form for the bank.

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I first encountered the essay in Hadara Bar-Nadav’s Contemporary Poetry class in spring 2016. Many of the other materials for the class I’ve just now had the pleasure of punching and fitting in three-ring binders for the move to Independence. Another personal connection I have to it I can trace as far back as fall 2009 when Professor Klatt ended my first poetry workshop with a lecture and slideshow in which he demonstrated organic forms in the Levertovian way with reference to Frank Lloyd Wright. The architectural analogy. Possible first inspiration for her “Notes.”

In the historical context of poets like James Wright making the turn away from the prescribed forms that were synonymous with poetry itself in his day, “Some Notes” obviously has great significance as a harbinger of things to come. For better or worse, I don’t mess with prescribed forms at all. No interest.

So where does that leave my relationship with Levertov?

1) I’m not sure I’m all the way on board with “the mystical” Denise Levertov “channels,” according to the intro on Poetry Foundation. There’s something very American Beauty about her opening statement that there is a form “in all things.” Things later reprised as objects. Some kind of “form beyond forms” as if it weren’t enough for A and B to be in some way similar without reference to a third entity in which both participate (“partake” is Levertov’s word). The world of the forms is Platonism 101. And apperception may be another version of the philosopher king. I see Socrates scratching in dirt to demonstrate geometry for a slave boy in one of the dialogues.

That said, I don’t know what I’m paying so much attention for to the birds and the trees and the wind in my contemplative writing practice if there’s nothing out there to [a]perceive. In a way my entire life project has been to find out if there is a God by listening hard for the voice of one. Obviously something’s brought me to speech but I’m always just trying to figure out what it is and that’s, yes, the exploratory in my writing.

2) Wasn’t sure, at first, what to make of Levertov’s use of the word apperception until I looked it up. Defined as conscious perception, the term seems to gesture at the very nature of what it is that we are doing in poetry. It is not enough to perceive. Not sufficient simply to receive sensory input. No, we must bring it into consciousness through attentiveness, that is, Levertov’s active listening and hang the shingle of language on the ineffable things, objects, whatever’s, of experience. That’s the whole point of poetry.

3) When it comes to her description of how organic poetry transpires, I find a lot to relate to with perhaps one caveat: Levertov says it won’t work to force a beginning before a moment of crystallization or vision of a “correspondence of elements.” I believe I experience moments of vision but they usually come later for me after I force a start in blind faith almost every day that they will come if I simply begin.

 

 

Further on Ginsberg

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Rocking Naomi in my arms this morning, I grabbed a few moments with this poem in Allen Ginsberg’s Collected Poems.  Since reading Jack Gilbert’s “Halloween,” I’ve had not only Ginsberg’s  Collected but  The Essential Ginsberg (Michael Schumacher’s 2015 curation of the complete works, various media) come in from the library.

This last page of Ginsberg’s poem “Today” exemplifies the holististic, or inclusive, attitude toward the content of poems I think of as a foil to Mary Oliver’s proclamation: “A person wants to stand in a happy place, in a poem” (“Singapore”). Which I think implies a kind of selectivity that is indistinguishable from censorship. “Today,” on the other hand, runs the full gamut, visiting sex, defecation, etc.

It can be no accident then that Ginsberg’s Firing Line interview at once begins with a discussion of these controls. It goes on to make plain a few other things as well: Ginsberg is a major talent. His performance of “Wales Visitation” apparently at least in part recitation from memory is a formidable feat. I regard the fact of its being composed on LSD of secondary importance to the sheer magnitude of the poem itself. Many of Ginsberg’s greatest poems derive from a maximalist impulse more often indulged by novelists than poets. Run-of-the-mill poets are more committed to concision, compression, and the implied minimalism of these aesthetic principles that yield tight little bombshell poems that usually fit on a single page, now a kind of industry standard. It’s almost taken for granted nowadays that that the three or five poem submission a magazine may read is limited to three or five pages. As a result, mags that are open to longer poems usually say so in their guidelines.

Maybe my initial reservations about the quality of Ginsberg’s work derive from this prevailing aesthetic commitment to minimalism. My own poems tend to be tighter, though I got in trouble with as professor once for questioning the necessity for this. Why maximalism in Ginsberg comes out in the Firing Line interview, too: Instead of trying to “stand in a happy place,” Ginsberg is trying to follow the trajectory of his own mind. His poems provide a kind of flightpath he thought others might be able to use (I’m borrowing this notion from Schumucher’s intro to The Essential Ginsberg).

So what’s the worthier goal? Accurate representation (mimesis) or the instrumental goods of comfort, peace, or encouragement? The publisher that published my first book Fall Risk has the motto “Exceptional works to replenish the spirit.” These words place Glass Lyre Press in the mission field of the latter camp of serviceability. Another way of asking this is more classical: Truth or Beauty? I’d layer that dichotomy with another, more contemporary: left brain, right brain.

Think about it.

Progress Report

As much as I submit my poems, it should come as no surprise that some end up being published without my knowledge. I have by googling myself discovered poems out there in the ether I thought were still available for publication. It’s a singularly disconcerting, dissociative experience, akin posthumous publication, and an emotional one because even if you’re happy for the publication, you’re sad not to have been privy to it and thereby able to celebrate its arrival. Because of this lack of consent, there’s also the feeling of violation, a bad aftertaste.

A change in my attitude toward magazine publication in general has lessened the negative aspect of this so-called posthumous experience: It’s natural to want the poems one collects to reach as many readers as they can. Magazine publication gives poems a sort of first life, a debut, but I have begun to understand that it is not their final resting place. The collection in which they first appear in one version or another may be. Or not. Some poems may go on to be collected and recollected, singled out and selected, and revised and revised and revised. In this way a single poem may go on to lead many lives.

This realization takes off the pressure implied by that legal phrase First American Serial Rights. Contrary to this, I believe the poem belongs not to the magazine, publisher, or author, but the reader in the moment of his/her/their encounter with the poem.

My book-instead-of-poem-centric approach to magazine publication probably began during the work I did on my latest collection, Baldy. Because of the aforementioned desire for poems to have multiple lives, I decided magazine publication, or at least acceptance for publication, would be a requirement for poems to be included. The fact that I had many previously published poems to work with, miscellaneous poems that hadn’t made the cut for past collections, gave me a big pool of poems to work with and Baldy is my biggest collection and perhaps most various, miscellaneous, or sprawling, though each section has its own distinct focus.

The book arrived on March 19, 2020. Yesterday, a mere three months after, I sat down to look at what new work’s passed the magazine acceptance test for the next 2021 collection about my daughter Naomi Mira, the pandemic, and my rereading–age 33, through the cancer lens– Confessions by Saint Augustine.

Here’s a rough table of contents from a Note on my phone of what I’ve got so far (mind you I counted 143 pages left in the book this morning):

 

  1. Go, Dog. Go!
  2. Dog Barking at Squirrel
  3. Repose with Golden Retriever
  4. Animal Brain
  5. Back Yard Elegy
  6. Corporeality
  7. House Church
  8. Stay-at-Home Order
  9. Eating Snow
  10. Snow Owls
  11. Storm Windows
  12. Born in Sin
  13. So Small a Boy, So Great a Sinner
  14. First Opening Flower of Youth
  15. Shadow Loves
  16. Taking Leave of a Pesticide Applicator
  17. Dongguan
  18. Crucifixion of a Phantasm
  19. Burr Oak Woods
  20. Infected
  21. Social Distancing
  22. What Thou Art to Me
  23. Tammy Ho Lai-Ming
  24. Wind Chimes
  25. Self-Quarantine
  26. Mosquitoes
  27. A Lowly Habitation
  28. Claw Machine
  29. Night Winds
  30. Brain Scans
  31. Room

The compilation of this list implies a kind of preplanning that is new for me, a product of the experience of putting together collections before, which I hope doesn’t jinx the finished book.

Starting from scratch after Baldy–a sort of catch-all for heretofore uncollected quality poems–has encouraged greater reliance of the work I’m doing right now in the newness of the now. Going out every morning I can to sit with Augustine in the morning air and connect with the one word that will lead to another.

“Halloween”

IMG_5092Poem in Jack Gilbert’s 2005 collection Refusing Heaven I rediscovered after Blue Springs North branch reopened (curbside service) and I reordered everything I could remember from the shelf.

Leafing through, I must have seen and recalled it, because I dreamed of posting it here in an entry and remembering the dream decided I had better go ahead and follow through if for no other reason than the poem is about Allen Ginsberg and he factored into the previous post.

Interesting how Gilbert’s “Destroyed / … clan” resonates with Ginsberg’s opening line of “Howl”: “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed / by madness.” Now Ginsberg’s mind is destroyed in Gilbert’s eyes in a far-sweeping indictment that slams of all things Buddhism and may be even Christian humility: “Let the little children come unto me …” (Matthew 19:14).

Suggests there is a worldliness to Gilbert that is at odds with the turn toward the meek in Ginsberg. I’ve often wondered about the quality of Ginsberg’s later work because it all seems to fall short of the much anthologized “Howl.” Maybe we’re both missing the point and Ginsberg’s simplicity leads beyond Gilbert’s Nietzschean classicism (Chekov, Aachen, etc.)

Maybe not.