THERE IS A LIVING SAPPHO AND IT IS CHUMKI SHARMA

Many scholars have said many things about poems: they are called, variously: epideictic, symbolic, lyrical, epic, intimate, personal, ancient, erotic, moral, psychological, traditional, honorable, dishonorable, sublime, metrical, simple, imagistic, deep image-ist, narrative, expressive, epistolary, Romantic, ritualistic, conventional, oral, ceremonial, private, formal, complex, natural, sexual, stoic, emotional, lovesick, historical, martial, haunting, memorable, subjective, contemporary, colloquial, feminist, precise, mythic, patriotic, fragmented, anonymous, famous, silly, obscure, magical, literary, rhetorical, religious, marvelous. Just to name a few.

Wine, too, can be called many things, and the making of wine is complex, but wine, like poetry, is experienced as wine in the first sip.

Poetry is known as poetry immediately.

Love has a thousand names, and is truly million-faceted, and needs time to sort itself out, even though love, too, may come, at first, with a sip, and, with one kiss, we may wonder, “Is this love?” But love requires duration.  It requires thinking.

Poetry, like wine, like music, destroys thought, and, at its best, becomes thought which is not thought, and that is its pleasure.

Wine, and poetry—as much as what creates them requires vast amounts of complexity—do not require duration to experience—like the first strains of music, we know at once that we are seeing poetry or drinking wine.

Sappho has but a few surviving fragments, but the wine of Sappho lives; we can go over to the shelf and drink from her right now.  Scholars call her the template for nearly everything lyrical—and beyond.

We don’t require more than fragments when it comes to poetry.

Poetry is the speech of Fragment.

This does not mean that all fragmented speech is poetry.  But it does mean that Poetry is very difficult to do, because you have to impress your devotees with just a few words.

One can make one’s lover mad with desire with a brief whisper, but that is only if the conditions are right, and Love is there to help, and we all know that Love is a very powerful god.

All the more impressive then, when humble poetry can make a stranger sigh or weep with a few words.

Rather than use all those words the scholars use, we would rather introduce Chumki Sharma to you as the poet of The Fragment.

What is the world without music, and what is music without melody, and what is melody but a few rising and falling notes?

We wish to introduce Chumki Sharma bereft of all scholarly pretension.

Please see what you can do with this idea.

Why is the poem small? Because the poem, to be itself, is small.

Of course there are many poets (mostly male) who came after Sappho, who had to beat their chests, and pile on the fragments, but fragments is all they finally are.

Now it is certainly possible to have a humble poet who can, with all due modesty and humility, produce a poem (fragment) with a particular lovely sound in the brevity of its sweetness and sweetness in its brevity, and, wishing to lengthen this delight for listeners, using the melody of the fragment, spin a poem into a certain length, for mere pleasure alone: once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered weak and weary, etc.  This is perfectly acceptable.

But your epic writers, your long-winded writers, those tedious, meticulous, bombastic bores!  Sappho would gag.  The fires along the river would gasp and go out.  The bright flames on the banks would douse themselves.  The coy, melodic snakes would crawl back into their holes and die.

We value the skill that lengthens a poem into an acceptable 100 lines, as Poe recommended.

And then there is the genius of Chumki Sharma, who presents the essence of the poem before intellectual impatience has a chance to spoil it—this is the greatest skill: the skill which poems like ‘The Raven’ build on and pay homage to; there is the rare and beautiful reflection, and then there is the thing itself, which the lake reflects.  Poe is the lake; Chumki Sharma is the essence of the reflection that is in the lake.

Her poetry is the wine—before mortals get a hold of it and turn it into mere clever poetry; she is the melody before it is turned into a skilled homage to melody.

There are countless brief poems, and many lovely ones.  Brevity, like anything else, catches us, very often, looking somewhere else for that brief moment; and yet, we know our readers will agree with us, that it is easy to tell, at the first sip, the godlike quality of Chumki Sharma’s poetry, which dwells with brevity, not as shape fashioned, but as pure being, and our readers, we are sure, will note how it rivals the best brief poems (fragments of eternity) ever written.

Chumki Sharma is Bengali and comes to us from Calcutta—the cultural capital of India when Britain ruled over her, but now a great modern city of a great modern country, beset with all the beauty and pain of the modern world; her poems come to us in English, from the naked, unfettered mind of a civilized woman transcending all the contradictions of civilization, arriving like the goddess on the shell, wearing neither chains of translation for English readers, nor the noisy chains of learning—a sad, austere soul singing what could be wine, or love, in the humility of her singing.

Why are Chumki’s poems brief?

Because she is modest.

This is the only reason, and the poet will feel this one reason sweetly eclipses a hundred learned reasons.

Inferior poets—and the true poets will understand—have other reasons for why their poems are brief (I made my intellectual point quickly and felt I could stop. I belong to the ____ school!  I revised it down to this size.)

Chumki is a master, because she has one reason for the lengths of her poems—her modesty.

We expel here, politely, those scholars who have a thousand reasons for why a poem is a certain length, or not.

The epic intention in poetry has long been overthrown as a useless, antiquated idea—if Sappho’s work had survived fully intact, as Homer’s did, this perhaps would have happened faster.

We do not remember Petrarch’s long work for which the Italian master was famous during his lifetime—only his shorter poems to Laura.

“I find no peace, yet I am not at war…I burn and I am like ice…I grasp nothing yet embrace the world…because of you, lady, I am this way” —Petrarch, Canzoniere #134

And with this exquisite passage all epics are eclipsed.

The cup is small which brings up the water from the spring.

The best known epic poems exist for us in fragments: short episodes, scenes, and well-known lines.

It is not necessary to sweep away epics and longer works, in order to better see the soft lantern flame of Chumki S. She exists everywhere. Her dancing flame is everywhere. She has no desire to inhibit poetry of any length. But she would not make you stay. She would not keep you. For she will not be kept.

There are billions of short poems in the starry universe, but we come to show you some real star light.

What are critics for, but to keep those moments which the world is too busy to know?

Let us move in closer, then, for a look at this lovely Bengali poet’s poems, where gods stand just above the humble dust, keeping watch at the starry windows.

Only the flute is played in the golden, evening air.

There will be no beating of the drum. The heart is sufficient now.

There is an essence of a sad life here; her poems contain perhaps the essence of a sad life (and so much as they are this, they will live forever).

Dignity, a strange, sad dignity, more so than beauty, lives in her poems; in their fragmentary wholeness, the poems of Chumki S. do not strive for beauty—she is not Coleridge or Poe—but something almost more divine, something deep, deep beyond this, which even a Poe or a Coleridge would be alive to: what we can only characterize as patient, philosophical sorrow.

Petrarch’s lyric triumph made tremendous claims for poetry as an expression of inescapable love which afflicts all sensitive creatures; the brief lyric, since it overthrew religion and the epic, has nearly made all the world and all life its home; with horror the parent watches their child seduced by brief beauty: the brief popular song, the brief promise, the brief kiss, the brief and sudden impregnation, and only then length, study, science, responsibility appear, in the person of the child who must be raised.

Chumki Sharma meets this problem head on, in a unique way, one which embraces and yet sweetly rejects the heretofore inescapable template of all lyric poetry and it’s sweet poison. She is Petrarch and Laura’s child. Chumki saves us from the sweet hell which kills millions in its love-lyric reality. With one poem! This is poem #24 in her book:

The One Night Stand—

Enough of putting poetry

on a pedestal.

I thought of the geek

in my Physics class

long back, to whom

‘Gauss’ Law  for Magnetic Fields’

was more desirable

than me.

What chance did Poetry stand

with her transient words

against the universal

elements of

‘Einstein’s Theory of Relativity?’

After spending the night with

‘The irrationality of the square root of 2,’

I return to poetry

this morning

like an errant lover

vaguely repentant.

This poem is more than a mere complaint. The greatest poets kill poetry anew, take poetry off its pedestal, question it, defy it; here in one fell swoop Chumki picks up lyric hopelessness and parks it between science and religion; there is a seven century long sigh of relief as Petrarch the lovesick poet is overthrown by “a geek” that makes the less than desirable poet herself “vaguely repentant.” There is a great laugh in that “vaguely”—the laughter of the simple, thoughtless, slowly turning wisdom of the ages, captured for us—now—by an English poet from Calcutta.

If poetry is a fragment that destroys thought, then it is like a pill, or a drug—one meant to soothe and relax. Poetry operates the way any drug does, by interfering with our normal functioning.

Poetry is simply a recognition that human emotions which exist around love can act like a drug, and poetry is merely that which can take these altering emotions which center around love, and put them into a pill.

The pill—working in this case, as a poem—functions always by the result of one person affecting another (one definition of love) and so the poet who manufactures the pill is always under the sway of another, and that is how the poet is a poet and is able to make a pill which affects our feelings.

We said Chumki Sharma is modest, and that is why her poems are short; this would seem to contradict what we are saying, for modesty doesn’t equal the ruthless ambition to make a pill which alters our emotions; but the poet needs to have suffered from love to make a pill which repairs love sickness; her modesty is due to suffering in love, for the modest are always modest precisely because of a strong respect for love’s power; the heartbroken are never arrogant, and the heartbroken make the best poets. The best lyrical poets have been crushed by the power of beautiful love.

Chumki Sharma is more than a love poet. But nonetheless love is the language of all lyric poetry and love merely hides in the background with this modern day Sappho; we do not find in Chumki Sharma’s poetry Sappho’s jealousy (it seems a foreign emotion to this beautiful woman from Calcutta, or perhaps she feels it is beneath the dignity of the Muse). We do not find anything like the love which demolishes the poet of the Canzoniere—Sharma’s poetry does not quite reach the pitch of Petrarch’s beautiful sufferings from love, producing the fragments of Petrarch’s desperate sighs.

Chumki Sharma does not remain to suffer in love, watering the ground upon which she stands with her tears.

She leaves.

Chumki leaves the circus, the gallery, the forest.

Chumki will kill lyric poetry with a science geek.

She is the poet of escape.

“Detangle the deep roots of the rose bush I planted […] I pull the plants from the earth, one by one.”

—“Running Away With The Garden”

Running away with a garden is a marvelous poetic conceit. One could almost start a whole poetic tradition with it.

Now it is true, that in love, as inevitably as we leave, we are left.

Love rules all the comings and goings.

Love has its rules, true. But in the poems of Cumki Sharma, it can be said that she is in flight, and we follow her. She feels deeply, but does not feel sorry for herself.

In her poem, “A Stranger In An Autumn Forest,” we find Chumki wondering, if not quite lamenting, about an attractive stranger she sees in a simple but mystical wood:

“Will he […] fade away with all his flesh?

[…] An ache grows in me that I have no desire to banish. If not him, this pain then.”

In these few lines is contained the entire Suffering Love Trope, what W.H.Auden called the “Divine Eros Tradition” of Dante, Petrarch, Shakespeare (the Sonnets) Shelley, etc. “If not him, this pain then” sums it up entirely!

In her poem Chumki is speaking of a stranger—and he is presented as an imaginary figure leaning against a tree in the poem; this is similar to Dante’s Beatrice and Petrarch’s Laura, aloof maidens who seem imaginative at times, even as they cause pain. The Eros is divine—not fleshy, not shameful, and perhaps not quite real. The pain is real, but pure, and yet to call pain pure does little to help the sufferer. Or perhaps it does help by way of diagnosis, pinpointing the pain, identifying its cause, which perhaps is part of the pill’s power. “What ails me?” You are in love, child.”

Two things now need to be said. Chumki does escape, in a way. “A Stranger In An Autumn Forest” ends with an image of the sky above the tree. A pure, simple image. A pure, simple escape.

Second, Dante and Petrarch created divine targets of their divine and lovely pain: Beatrice and Laura, private associations which, in their poems, became famous. This raises interesting questions about male versus female love: women do not make monuments of their private sufferings.

In Dante and Petrarch the love becomes stronger in the loss, leading to what is essentially worship of God—worship of a deity who is everything and nothing. Everything, because Creator, nothing, because nowhere in sight.

The loss of love, the lover who has left and broken your heart, can remain an irritation, or it can become a religion.

Our religion, our being, as expressed in lyric poetry, is how we express that irritation. Do we go, “Oh damn!” Or do we drape our irritation in beauty? Or do we become a scientist, and wonder not about God, but emptiness?

The first poem in Chumki Sharma’s just arrived, first book, Running Away With The Garden, is a metaphysical tour de force. It is a sly treatise on advanced physics. We come face to face with the idea that poignancy and brevity in the poem may be due to the fact that the poem is a succinct and profound mathematical formula. The battered lover’s modesty is wisdom. Mad love hurts her into science—and poetry.

We quote poem #1 in full:

Shape of Emptiness—

He buys me coffee in a cup

so light my lips drown, scald

in the heat of the liquid.

Nothing exists between me

and the cup in my hand.

Heat seeps through it like

mist on the hills.

The potter’s wheel spins

shaping emptiness.

A number of profound ideas flow into each other in this poem. 1. Matter shapes emptiness. 2. The shape of emptiness is matter. 3. Matter (therefore) doesn’t “exist.” 4. Existence is “buying” and exchange. 5. He buys her coffee: (heat, energy)—but not a cup (matter, stability, order, house). 6. Then a transition quickly to a startling beautiful, nature image (“mist on the hills”) that feels absolutely appropriate, even as it increases our wonder: the “energy exchange” of mist in a natural landscape. The poem finally returns to artifact: making (and implicitly buying and selling) a vessel, which brings us back to that cup of emptiness holding energy. “Nothing exists between me and the cup in my hand.”

This is a metaphor for Chumki’s poetry: the pill, the drug, of her poetry dissolves in the reader: it is a pure, visceral experience without “poetry,” without a medium, getting in the way. “Nothing exists between [you] and…” Chumki’s poetry, like the iconic fragments of Sappho, like the new lyric transcending Petrarch’s love sickness: the ultimate lyric drug cure, disappearing entirely into the reader’s consciousness.

This poem, for instance, makes the case exactly as we are describing it, and of course we quote it in full:

#10 The Train Missed Me—

Thirst so old, it becomes

the air I breathe.

Between a cup of

tea and Valium,

I choose the latter,

relish the sweetness

of pill after pill

melting in the heat

of my mouth.

Hypnotic song of the

morphine in my veins.

And rain,

after many days

of no sunset, rain.

The drops vanish into

my barren fields, vapour

hisses from the cracks.

Rain lashes on the

window, sprays on my

bed, pillow, face, hair

and all I can smell

is the beginning

of the end.

Reaching the station

just as the last train leaves.

It makes no difference that this poem is all about herself, all about her feelings—with lyric genius, less is more, and the template is the poet, and if it fails to interest, this is not because the poem is “only” about the poet’s feelings (Petrarch’s Lyric Revolution), for how the poet interests us makes no difference, and all the better if the poet herself is interesting, and she is, but ironically due to the poetry, which nonetheless disappears, like the coffee cup of no substance, into herself. Or, is it herself disappearing into her poetry, and the reader who stands intrigued and dumbfounded, the reader the real witness of the train (the poem, Chumki) leaving?

Chumki, the poet herself, not Love, will determine who leaves and who is left.

Another trope she uses is the atomistic, Lucretius universe, symbolized by endless dust which gathers and must be swept away: fine particles of dirt represent endless epics, endless effort, all those old traditions which the lyric poet must take into account and deflect with a brief and wholesome and devout sigh, and no one does it more coyly than Chumki Sharma:

#12 Dirt Builds A World

Cleanliness drive in the city,

a century’s dirt to be swept

underneath. I see

old women everywhere,

like crones out of fairy tales,

sweeping dirt from the streets.

I stop one of them, ask her

for three wishes.

She stares at me, eyes

of Bobbies on a thief,

mutters to the old woman

next to her, “she doesn’t even

know Hindi, her blouse is too flimsy,

what is going to become of us?”

All I want is her broom.

New Moon

I tiptoe around your dusty footprint

on the walls of this heart.

The heart is the finite entity upon which the infinite dust becomes a writing pad—which will not be erased by any “cleanliness drive” (earnest moral project) if the tiptoeing poet can help it. Chumki invokes a world with a few naughty (filthy) lines.

This lyric mastery is on display throughout Chumki’s book of 30 poems.

It is why we dare to trumpet her greatness, even though her modesty may rebel, and reject it all, as we look around to find her, longing for her lyric pill that has a thousand names, but which immediately makes us burn like ice and freeze like fire, in a delicious agony both artificial and natural, a thrill at once very old and very new; we betray all we are devoted to in this poet’s arms, even as it feels in her embrace that we are true.

This is what this poet does to us.

Her drug works quickly. She sums up the whole universe of single motherhood in a poem on her son, #5 “My Little Van Gogh,” with the smallest drop of her exquisite lyric poison:

“No colouring books for my son.”

[…] He drew his own sky.”

[…] Once my little Van Gogh turned our

asphalt floors into vibrant forests.

His father was angry. I was secretly happy he was taking his art beyond […]

…he made me a box to keep my bangles.

The Bouganvillea spills over

the chained link fence outside my window.”

The lyric gift of Chumki Sharma crumples every awkward convention with a whimsical, soft touch. She is truly the ideal of Goethe’s Eternal Feminine, the wise female force in action.

We quote the whole of poem #6 in her book:

The Book on The Art of Bombing—

On the eve of the 70th anniversary

of the Hiroshima bombings,

you call me and tell me to write on war.

You say a poet should be versatile,

should be able to write on any topic anytime.

And I remember the book you had gifted me,

perhaps as a bribe for a poem on war?

“How To Make Hand Grenades For Dummies.”

That book the same size as the Gita

on my grandfather’s desk,

Motifs of flowers and fighter jets

on the cover of the book

sharing the sky with bombs falling like rain.

Today a woman who loves to read

will hold the book in her hands.

Today a man will be killed by a raindrop.

Chumki Sharma will not let the world tell her how to write poetry. Lyric poets who have the insight and talent and joy and grief of Chumki Sharma owe the world nothing. The contradiction exists: the extreme modesty of the invisible poet—who is, nonetheless, the world, and holds the fate of the world with the way she administers her lyric drug. We are killed by Chumki’s raindrop.

That she “is the world” is not too large a claim—she makes herself the subject of her poetry, which is how the lyric drug works: “Today a woman who loves to read” is the essence of self-awareness which makes the poem and the world one in the mind of the reader—in that escape from the world, to the world, which is the great social act of the art of poetry itself.

As Chumki writes in the final stanza of her haunting poem, #8 “The  Gallery:”

I am in all and none I own.

After every rain

I leave the place for

Something called home.

We look for Chumki Sharma in ourselves. And then we realize she is looking for us, but this is the final illusion, for a poem has no eyes. Chumki Sharma knows that even the gift of lyric poetry cannot go that far. She must be satisfied, and we must be satisfied with:

In the moonlight

I step into my own shadow.

— #3 The Inmate

We shall be watching Chumki Sharma for a long time to come.

***************************************************

Salem, MA Dec. 22, 2015

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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IN SPRING I SHALL BE OLDER

In spring I shall be older, and in summer, older still.
Let me stay here in winter, where I’m young, despite the chill.

The love who betrayed me has a birthday in December.
When I knew Him, He was young. And that’s all I remember.

Youth’s vanity and pride hurts no one. It is the length
Of years and its wisdom that wounds. Love has no strength

In the God who forgives mistakes, though He is deep and wide.
It is not youth’s folly which ruins. Only age. And its pride.

 



 

 

 

DYING FROM A SMILE IS THE WORST WAY TO DIE

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Dying from a smile is the worst way to die, and I’ll tell you why:

No one has ever been killed by a smile, except when love retreats behind it

And the smile is the only thing left smiling, and you know the world

Is false—it is what you always knew—that nothing appears

As it really is—the great painting is a fake! The lover’s smile is hiding tears!

The conclusion made, and acted on, was wrong for all these years!

Wrong! Wrong! This smile was not anything like you thought!

This is the smile that is sincere, this is the smile that is happy.

And this is the one that was bought.

But yours is the smile that knows

What I know. The poem we read together. Can we find another of those?

 

PROFESSIONALS ARE SAD

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Professionals are sad.

That’s why I fell in love with one.

They make the brakes work and the headlights go on.

Some make sure the headlines are not too terrifying—

The population will go into a panic unless calmed by the sure hand of the professional.

Being a good professional, the dentist has a good sense of humor—

She needs one to get through her days in that lair of pain,

So one night she will be flown by professionals where professionals

Will ensure her vacation will be a lovely one.

The professional will consult budgetary experts before

She explains to the new student body how a failing grade

Could impact a professional career

In the music industry, the art world, and other spheres of the professional realm.

My lover spoke a little ruefully about professional love, making a sad joke

That, as I lay next to her, blankly, in an unprofessional mood, suddenly made me terribly sad.

Professionalism must be the true essence of existence.

I make a grand effort to use commas correctly,

In my escape, here, in this café, with a view outside of slightly ancient houses,

Parking garages, and flags, as I read Dante—his sad descriptions of hell, and the pain.

Even the one who pours my coffee is a professional, with worries

Only professionals know; those who, a little sadly, make sure things run smoothly

In their place of employment, the friendly little café which hides a complexity

Only properly understood by professionals—professionals who might publish professionally

So readers might purchase their ideas and feel a little less confused as they go through their day.

 

 

 

 

 

WHICH CAME FIRST: STORY OR CRAZY?

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Shakespeare: 1. Greatest Storyteller. 2. Poet 3. Taught us storytellers are liars.

 

A number of ideas recently entered my mind, drawn into it by a personal observation.

The personal observation is personal. I will get to it later. It is the centerpiece of my theme, but first, here are the ideas which saw fit to add themselves to the conviction that I was onto something real.

I saw a truism quoted approvingly in the New York Times in one of those ‘best books of the year’ pieces which went something like this: stories only happen to those who can tell them.

The ‘best books of 2015’ piece outlined those disturbing novels, memoirs and non-fiction works of eccentricities and loss which are discussed because they are discussed. The Times notice which originally drew me in was the new book on the Creative Writing phenomenon and Paul Engle, with its “show don’t tell” mantra that served to professionalize the American writer as a civilized university product—and was indeed sponsored by U.S. Government anti-Communism during the Cold War (just as it has now come out that abstract painting was CIA funded in the war against Soviet Realist art.)

The upshot of “show don’t tell” is the conviction that “telling” is propaganda compared to the more authentic and personal rhetoric that “shows,” gathered from genuinely observed experience.

The most exciting story-telling always reveals some kind of shame or tragedy or horror, the kind that has us saying, “No! Really?” in excited whispers. Is it real or fiction? It doesn’t matter. Our reaction is the same.

Most fiction is loosely based on truth. A story is a story, and the fine points of whether a particular piece of writing is fiction or non-fiction are reserved for the tedious scholar who is ignored by the rest of us, and who, when turned to, never finally knows the full story in all its truth, anyway.

The novelist “shows” what appears to be the “truth” by way of fiction, not because there is some poetic “truth” which hides behind fiction, or because there is something about “fiction” which allows “truth” to come to light—this is a sentimental falsehood repeated often by novelists and their defenders.

The novelist “shows” what is taken as truth only because the reader assumes “truth” is present due to the great confusion which naturally blurs truth and fiction in our minds; rather than admit ignorance, readers “fill in” the “truthfulness” of the writer’s presentation and construe it as “truth” without question—because this is what ignorance does.

The novelist is a cut-and-paste liar and the novelist’s “truth” is a shadow—cast by the truth of the reader’s ignorance, and the reader’s ignorance is willing to be duped by the fiction, whose “showing” merely strengthens the delusion that “truth” of any kind exists in the fiction. Emotional truth—the truth that one is having feelings— should not be confused with truth, or with cut-and-paste lies that trigger these emotions.

Therefore “showing” in fiction, the non-judgmental presentation of selected, cut-and-paste, experience with its corresponding emotions, the classic Workshop fiction formula, is not valid or truthful, per se. “Showing” stands in opposition to “telling” in name only, since selected presentation of experience: incident, dialogue, etc lacks truth in the precise way all mere experience lacks truth. What happens to us has no truth, per se, except as it is our private experience—which may potentially comprise leaning a skill through repetition. But our experience merely related by way of a story told to someone else, has for that other person, as literature, no necessary truth—unless the “truth” of a pleasant illusion, but only if pleasantly and artistically conveyed.

The only human truth with a capital T is moral truth—what happens to us is true only in its moral cause and effect. Whether this is told or shown is entirely beside the point: the difference is overstated since language by its very nature shows by telling.

Advertising is communication with a motive; it is crucial to understand that story-telling may be below even that of advertisement: a distinguished novel the inferior of a mere advertisement no matter how genuine the experiences conveyed in the novel. If an author’s experience is genuine, it is private, and private experiences alone can never rise to the level of truth unless we add what “showing” supposedly opposes: “telling.”

“Let me show you what I would otherwise tell you” is all about the illusion created— and nothing else.

There is nothing morally superior about “showing.” By “showing” we use an aesthetic term, only, and one that was practiced by the ancient Greeks by way of producing beauty—very different from the Workshop formula.

Now my personal observation: there is a very common personality that loves to talk for its own sake, and I was struck recently by one I know filling up time with talk in a way that was so pleased with itself and at the same time disengaged from preventative reality so it made me wonder: since we delight to hear stories of tragedy and loss, is it possible that story-telling itself can become a kind of mania which “shows” a “loss” of mind and reason? So that the “best” show-don’t-tell stories are, in fact, products of madness?

The stern, theoretical “telling” of communist or statist rhetoric is well worth refuting.  No argument there.

But what is the true value of the antidote?

What good is maniacal telling of the “show-don’t-tell” variety?

First, it essentially springs from personal experience so dense, genuine and “real,” it crowds out our own mundane and empty existence—that existence which is charged with “figuring things out” in order to live.

Second, it competes with all experience, since this is what fiction that “shows” finally depends on.

Third, it has no conclusions or directives, since it is genuine only because it “shows” and refuses to “tell.”

Fourth, it makes no attempt to please for its own sake: it is merely in thrall to the mania of its story-telling mode. When we tell a story, there is no attempt to do anything more than tell a story which causes the reader to exclaim excitedly, “No! Really?” Content—the lived—is all. Form—the teachable—is nothing.

Fifth, the sum total of others’ experience is so vast and interesting just by itself, that unless there is a mechanism of sorting, we find ourselves in a continual state of excited whisper, “No! Really?”

Sixth, the professionalization of this kind of writing in the Writing Programs, feeding directly into the book industry, has made it necessary to carry this ‘rhetoric of experience’ on our backs as editors, writers, and publishers. There is nothing worse than when the leaders of any industry are guilty of gratuitously dumbing down that industry—one in which lurid content is everything and form is nothing.

Seventh, there is nothing wrong with lived experience and its communication, except that it already exists in all walks of life—and when literature becomes merely a competition for ‘who can tell the biggest whopper of a tale’ without any self-reflection or qualifying judgment or restraint or art or philosophy (telling), then literature has essentially become a cynical part of what makes human life the most cynical.

For as we know, the most cynical is not the grief and consternation we find in rhetoric that desires to solve problems and prevent disasters, but the mindless “showing” with a devilish maniacal delight of every imaginable and preventable horror under the sun: literature = yellow journalism.

Now it may be said that there is good “show don’t tell” writing and bad “show don’t tell” writing, and that the good variety has been screened by good editors and publishers and the best of it is intelligent and not maniacal and does do a little valuable “telling” in the end, after all.

But of course. There is always ‘bad and good’ within bad, and always hybrid concessions which dilute any picture, but this should not distract from our main point—story-telling that takes on insane, self-justifying dimensions across the culture, supported by a professional apparatus and a professional class, all of which circles back to enhance the very same mania in subsequent generations of students and general readers.

When we say pleasure for its own sake, we don’t mean that there is something inherently wrong with the pure joy of story-telling for its own sake.

But telling a story carries it with it a responsibility that say, Mozart’s music does not.

Words can libel, slander, present half-truths, make a mere show of learning, and horrify and seduce in damaging ways. And further, storytelling, or talking for its own sake, can just be a plain useless waste of time, a vanity kept afloat by a professional class for its own benefit. So there is that.

The professional apparatus of music can safely pursue Mozart for its own sake and there is no doubt that this is a musical good with all sorts of side benefits (one doesn’t have to love Mozart personally to sense at once that Mozart embodies a universal musical skill that can only help and not hinder the pursuit of music itself in any way).

Cold War anti-Communist officials had no trouble believing that the Soviet Union was a unified and far-reaching society that was dangerous because of its art and writing and rhetoric.

But instead of finding a common ground of cultural connection, such as Mozart, the CIA instead gave us both abstract painting and the Writing Program Era of Paul Engle (good organizer, terrible poet) which celebrated anti-intellectual fiction (the novel as wounded auto-biography) and a “new poetry” which quickly lost any sort of public due to its poor quality.

Poetry is the crucial literary expression—which is like Mozart’s music: joy and excellence for its own sake that escapes all propaganda, either the sort practiced by communists or the kind practiced by the Jorie Grahams in the Writing Workshop.

Poetry avoids the trap of many types of story-telling rhetoric: the propagandist, the gasbag, the immoral confessionalist, the college essay blather, etc.

Poetry which is transcendently beautiful, setting the standard by what it is for all those who would aspire to be a poet—or any kind of writer—is unimaginable to most people, the same way that Mozart’s music flies above that of the folk singer. But who would want Mozart and the folk singer to compete? Never. That would be like introducing the fiendish illogic of war into heaven. No sane person would assert the world of music would be better if there were no Mozart—not even a folk singer singing communist folk songs.

If we are to have “writing programs” (to fight communism or cultivate professionalism or what have you) let us produce poets of the first order—Mozarts, who may then go on to write whatever they wish.

Just as with artists: first let us see if they can draw.

And musicians: first let us see if they can invent a melody.

If we are serious about avoiding propaganda and gas bagging and lower quality and lower standards and increasingly bored students, the answer is simple: music, poetry, and drawing which is beautiful for its own sake.

The blatherers will object, of course.

But in the world I am imagining, at least we will know what blathering—as opposed to poetry—is.

 

 

 

 

 

YOU CANNOT LOVE HER, BUT I CAN

 

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She came from the feminine sea,

Like creation emerging from creation,

To be loved by an affectionate and useful man,

Who, when most useful, pleases her with musical poetry,

Chiming with love that unites a broken nation.

You cannot love her, but I can.

 

He made books and locks, the rain against the sea;

I need them, like food—each evening of each day,

Because I hide in a house made by wandering man,

Unable to find pleasure on what I lie on; you see

The mountains that ring, like clouds, this rainy valley?

You cannot love her, but I can.

 

She is all that a woman intends to be

When birds arrive at the back of the day

To holler at you, a masculine, philosophical  man,

Who strives each day to write poetry

That can make itself into something anyone can say.

You cannot love her, but I can.

A WHITE DUDE PLEADS WITH HIS POLITICALLY CORRECT LOVER

Your political opinions mean nothing to me—

Opinions on matters of the state abstractly

Blow in the abstract breeze.

They matter not—except that they might make you hate me

And then they do matter—terrifically.

I love you, purely, like I love the taste of cheese,

But I love you alone, in a manner that excludes all,

Which is the definition of love—in two the one becomes free.

People are nothing until they fall.

Nothing you hate or love makes you my enemy,

Unless your politics pictures me, in some way, guilty.

Our love is for the moment; it cannot endure—

We are food for each other, we delightfully dine

In pure taste—our mutual love is pure,

And since you don’t want children, I’ll agree

To forget the future, and add to food the brilliant wine.

The past, as well, we can leave aside.

My ancestors slaughtered, owned slaves and lied,

But I was born innocently, like you,

When two moments kissed, for a moment or two.

 

 

 

 

 

 

DAVID BITTNER AND THE THÉÂTRE DES VARIÉTÉS: NOSTALGIC JOURNALIST’S QUEST FOR ARCANE FACTS LEADS TO UNLOCKING OF IOWA SYNAGOGUE’S OLD SECRET

Percival Goodman, architect

One of our readers, David Bittner, who sometimes posts, in Comments, long, reflective pieces of self-induced musings not necessarily connected to the Scarriet article or poem above, has placed us in a dilemma; he has placed with us, unsolicited, both by mail and electronically, an article he has written entitled “Nostalgic Journalist’s Quest for Arcane Facts Leads to Unlocking of Iowa Synagogue’s Old Secret.”

We are utterly charmed by David Bittner; he represents something which we consider important, though we can’t quite identify it—a spirit from a bygone era: a rambling, observant innocence—which, I think most of our readers will discern, is a spirit that differs from our cranky and beloved Scarriet.

We at Scarriet—our strangely named Blog—aspire to expound a high-sounding, credible, youthful yet scholarly, Zeitgeist of Poetry and Culture in a manner serious, Germanic, Romantic, racy, tragic, traditional, classical, critical.

Bittner offers a blast of nostalgia, humility, playfulness.

We pound. He dances. We dart. He skips. We flog. He chuckles. We romanticize. He defers.

We wish to publish him, but how can we do so, without betraying ourselves editorially? Our readers will see Bittner’s writing on Scarriet and think, ‘What the hell is going on?’

But we do pride ourselves on being inclusive. If we sometimes court controversy, we never intend to hurt; we seek to enlighten, to join hands.

We cannot turn Bittner away.

We found a solution.

We will marry his essay to remarks made by America’s greatest genius, in the fictional narration of his famous “The Murders in the Rue Morgue.” The solemn will be paired with the playful.

Bittner’s stated theme is “quest for arcane facts leads to unlocking…old secret…”

In Bittner’s essay, the way to the “secret” is filled with detours, and Poe perhaps can tell us why:

The mental features discoursed of as the analytical, are, in themselves, but little susceptible of analysis. We appreciate them only in their effects. We know of them, among other things, that they are always to their possessor, when inordinately possessed, a source of the liveliest enjoyment. As the strong man exults in his physical ability, delighting is such exercises as call his muscles into play, so glories the analyst in that moral activity which disentangles. He derives pleasure from even the most trivial occupations bringing his talent into play.

And so Poe introduces his tale, and before he gets to the actual mystery and its horror, he recounts how the narrator of the tale and his seclusive, humble companion, the amateur detective Dupin (a model for the later Sherlock Holmes) are walking along the streets of Paris together, for about fifteen minutes, without speaking:

We were strolling one night down a long dirty street, in the vicinity of the Palais Royal. Being both, apparently, occupied with thought, neither of us had spoken a syllable for fifteen minutes at least. All at once Dupin broke forth with these words:

“He is a very little fellow, that’s true, and would do better for the Théatre des Variétés.”

“There can be no doubt of that,” I replied unwittingly, and not at first observing (so much had I been absorbed in reflection) the extraordinary manner in which the speaker had chimed in with my meditations. In an instant afterward I recollected myself, and my astonishment was profound.

“Dupin,” I said gravely, “this is beyond my comprehension. I do not hesitate to say that I am amazed, and can scarcely credit my senses. How was it possible you should know what I was thinking of—?” Here I paused, to ascertain beyond a doubt whether he really knew of whom I thought.

“—of Chantilly,” said he, “why do you pause? You were remarking to yourself that his diminutive figure unfitted him for tragedy.”

This was precisely what had formed the subject of my reflections. Chantilly was a quondam cobbler of the Rue St. Denis, who, becoming stage-mad, had attempted the rôle of Xerxes, in Crébillon’s tragedy so called, and been notoriously Pasquinaded for his pains.

“Tell me, for Heaven’s sake,” I exclaimed, “the method—if method there is—by which you have been enabled to fathom my soul in this matter.” In fact I was even more startled than I would have been willing to express.

“It was the fruiterer,” replied my friend, ” who brought you to the conclusion that the mender of soles was not of sufficient height for Xerxes et id genus omne.

“The fruiterer!—you astonish me—I know no fruiterer whosoever.”

“The man who ran up against you as we entered the street—it may have been fifteen minutes ago.”

And with that, we present David Bittner:

***

AS I enter my dotage, I have found myself eager to get answers to some questions that have had me wondering since I was young.  For instance, I would like to do DNA-testing that might tell me more about my ethnicity. Raised in an observant Jewish home, am I in a straight line of descent from the ancient Israelites, or am I also partly Slavic, as I suspect? The Slavic may not show very much in my phenotype, but I think it must be there in my genotype! And what is my exact height in feet and inches? As one nurse put it to me recently, “It looks like you are 5′ 5” smack dab !”

Three years ago I took a short trip to Rockford, Illinois, which I consider my second home town. Born in Omaha, Nebraska, I spent most of my formative junior high and high school years in Rockford. Imagine the jolt I got when I went to have lunch at the Sweden House, a very nice, new restaurant in the mid-60s (and the place where my high school graduation party was held), and found a sign on the door that said, “This property is condemned.”

The next day I took a bus into Chicago to see the famous Brookfield Zoo. My mother had told me this was no doubt the origin of my dreams since childhood about a fabulous park with rectangular pools and flower beds, lots of fountains, and an old blue-uniformed ticket-taker with a white walrus mustache. Now, as I made my first visit to the Brookfield Zoo since 1957, I saw no mustachioed, old ticket-taker, but there unmistakably were the rectangular pools and flower beds and fountains that I remembered. I think that St. Helena could not have felt any surer about the holy places she identified in fourth-century Palestine, than I felt about these familiar, old features of Brookfield Zoo.

Another story that goes back to early childhood concerns the two summer vacation trips we took to Lake Okoboji, a popular resort in Iowa. On one of these two trips I accidentally dropped parts of a children’s tea-set, made by the well-known Ohio Art Company, right into Lake Okoboji. Of all the miniature metal utensils that I had just lost, I particularly liked the blue teapot and the way its blue lid fit so exactly into the top. So in the late 1980s, when I saw the very same tea set, in mint condition, on sale for $50 at a West Palm Beach, Florida flea market, I had to have it. If affects me in the same way today as it did originally. It is cunning!

And I wanted to find my all-time favorite “Peanuts” comic strip again. It was about Peppermint Patty getting drowned out by her classmates’ laughter when she got up to present her science project on “toast, before and after.” Patty began, “Now, on this board is a slice of untoasted bread, and…” The whole next panel was filled with Patty’s classmates chortling, “HA, HA, HA, HA, HA, HA.” It reminded me of my own ridiculous seventh grade science project. I turned my saucer sled upside down, painted it red with two big green spots for eyes, and attached two pipe-cleaners to the top for antennae. I called my creation a “Martian.” I wrote a few pages supposedly describing its locomotive, alimentary and sensory systems. I never found out exactly what grade Mr. Hill, our popular P.E. Dept. head, who also taught science, gave my project, but I can definitely tell you that it was not among those selected for display in that year’s school science fair. But it’s much more important to me now to have this cartoon drawn by Charles Schulz in 1970. I found it in The Complete Peanuts, volume 10. These volumes were produced surely, but slowly.

Now, related to all these Proustian tea-cakes stories and the “George Webber” story of quest for identity, told by Thomas Wolfe in his novel, You Can’t Go Home Again, is another story from my youth that lurked as a question mark in my mind until recently. Really intent this time on getting an answer, I found it by surfing the internet and digging through library books and journal articles.

I will explain. And now I come to the main subject of this whole article. When I was a teenager, in temple youth group in Rockford, several of us participated in a “conclavette” held at Temple Emanuel in Davenport, Iowa. We were struck to see how the second half of the Shema prayer had been carved in English on the stone façade of Temple Emanuel. Of course we all knew what it was supposed to say, which was, “The Lord Our God is One.” But the two final letters of the phrase—N and E—made the whole six-word phrase, carved in the streamlined, sans serif, International style of Bauhaus, beg to be read as, “THE LORD OUR GOD IS OK.” We all noticed it and laughed. But was it real or just our imagination?

Now, I have often thought that somebody could write a good thesis on the decline of the typewriter as an instrument for creating ambiguous messages, with the rise of the computer. There used to be many traveling salesmen who took typewriters with them on the road. These typewriters were used primarily to write business reports. But once in a while you would hear the story of some distraught, lonely salesman typing a letter to his wife from the road. He would manipulate the typewriter keys to create words and messages with double meanings. For instance, he might type, sloppily, “May is beautiful. I wish you were her.”  The same possibility does not exist in computer-land. (And if the computer had not largely replaced the typewriter, imagine what a field day “birthers” and other detractors of President Barack Obama could have had with the names “Omaha” and “Obama.” Participating in the Nebraska Democratic presidential caucus in 2008, I had to do a double-take when I saw certain posters and placards that were being hoisted.)

Or there is the following story that my cousin Harry’s sister Ruth used to relish. (Both Harry and Ruth are deceased now.) In the 1930s, Ruth served as administrative assistant to Dr. Philip Sher, president of the Jewish Federation of Omaha. While Ruth was still new to her job, she signed some of Dr. Sher’s routine correspondence with a simple abbreviation of his name: “Dr. P. Sher.” Of course Ruth had no idea that she had created an embarrassing double entendre. But it so happens that a prominent Yiddish term of endearment for a little boy is a “pisher.” My great-aunt Dora Arbitman, for instance, used to call me, “a little pisher” when I was that age. At any rate, Dr. Sher noticed the great similarity of his initial and last name to the slang Yiddish word, “pisher,” and he was not amused.

And then there was my typewritten gaffe, written accidentally on purpose, just to shake up the gals in the composition room of The Fond du Lac (WI) Commonwealth Reporter, where I was a summer intern in 1969 and 1970. In one of my accident reports, about a Mr. Puckaway’s auto mishap, I typed F instead of P. (And there really was this Mr. Puckaway, who was involved in a car-crash. I did not make him up.) Sure enough, soon three young women came running upstairs to the newsroom, ostensibly to wag their fingers at me, but it was obvious to me, from their friendly laughter, that I had actually made their morning.

Once again, opportunities and excuses for ambiguity, such as seen in most of the preceding scenarios, do not exist in Computerland. But that still leaves stonemasonry and other traditional media to offer possibilities for mischief-making and honest accidents. Touring Morocco in 1994, I was shown the tomb of a Sultan where, it was speculated, some little stars of David in the paved floor may have been the work of an unknown Jewish architect’s assistant who was just using the Star of David to scrawl the equivalent of, “Kilroy Was Here.”

Or how about the famous epitaph, “O Rare Ben Jonson,” on the grave of the great English dramatist Ben Jonson (1573—1637)? The “O” and the word-fragment, “rare,” were intended to spell the Latin word, “Orare,” which means, “Pray for.” But the “wrong” phrase has actually been considered so much more suitable than the “right” one, that no one has disturbed it for almost 400 years. And let’s not forget Richard Nixon’s solemn criticism of black leftist youth’s “Du Bois” Clubs in California for supposedly using phonics to create unfair competition for the Boys Clubs of America. (As a private citizen in the mid-60s, Nixon served for several years as president of the Boys Clubs of America.)

Then let us consider the little blue-and-white six-pointed stars and other Jewish symbols that Berta Hummel (Sister Maria Innocentia) used freely in her artwork, upon which the later Hummel figurines were based. Some of the angles of Berta’s stars may look a bit askew compared to those of other “Mogen Dovids,” old and new, but they were still recognizable enough as “Jewish stars” to make Hitler angry at the young nun. He forbade the sale of any Hummel work in Germany. Hitler also didn’t like Sister Berta’s depictions of the Stations of the Cross. Maybe Berta’s pictures just made it plain that most of the ones doing good things were Jews, and most of the ones doing bad things were Romans! (The author’s aunt by marriage, the late Shirley Bittner, was Sister Berta’s niece or great-niece. The family is not sure which. I think it is simply not that important to them. But, a convert to Judaism herself, my aunt certainly exhibited no anti-Semitic leanings, and she now rests in Omaha’s Mount Zion Cemetery, a very well-kept little Jewish cemetery of her own choosing.)

And now, as my favorite example of ambiguity in arts and crafts, I turn to my friendship of 40+ years with Gerard and Sonia Teller, formerly of Strasbourg, France, now of Jerusalem, Israel. I have many fond memories of them and their four children. One Friday night in the summer of 1973, we had just sat down to the ritual Sabbath Eve meal. I picked up the silver Kiddush cup (the goblet used for blessing the wine) by my place-setting and casually examined it. What should I discover, but that stamped onto the bottom of the cup, all by itself, was the figure, 800. I think it was probably a foundry mark. But I showed the cup to Gerard and Sonia and said, “Regardez! Cela date de Charlemagne!” It gave us all a good laugh. (As any educated person ought to know, in the year 800, Charlemagne became the first Holy Roman Emperor.)

As we have seen in this example from France, ambiguity may be imposed on certain letter groups. Some people do this to make trouble, others for more humane reasons, like humor. Or, an artist like Sister Berta Hummel may use graphics to make a political statement—gambling on this statement’s whole possibility of meanings to keep her out of prison. The reasons for these bloopers just vary widely. They may include everything from damage control, to theatricality, to playfulness, to carelessness, to opportunism, to simple mistakenness, and to malice.

I think that Percival Goodman, widely acknowledged as the king of American synagogue architecture, and the man who designed Temple Emanuel of Davenport, would come under the “playful” category. Wikipedia tells us that Goodman believed in using “dramatic” and “attention-getting” “accents” to make motorists notice the new synagogues of outlying suburbia. Goodman designed more than 50 synagogues, himself, coast to coast. These “dramatic accents” and Goodman’s coy description of himself as “an agnostic converted by Hitler” make it very believable that this was a man who would think nothing of writing, “THE LORD OUR GOD IS OK” on the wall of a synagogue. Goodman said, “I don’t have any notion of what God is all about; I’m very suspicious of the whole notion of God. Therefore I can only deal with men. Well, that’s not as high an aspiration as God, and therefore the work I do will always be secular.”

And so I have satisfied myself, after 40 years of uncertainty (including the frustration of unanswered phone calls, letters, and e-mails to Temple Emanuel), that the quality of being “OK” must have been an addition that Percival Goodman made to the 13 traditional attributes of God. He was a real intellectual and a well-meaning man. So was his brother, Paul Goodman, with whom Percival co-authored numerous books on philosophy and religion. And so was Somerset Maugham, the famous English author, who was hard to pin down on what he believed. At times he flaunted atheism—mostly to shock people. But during his final illness at the age of 91, he felt the return of faith and said he would accept people’s prayers. So maybe we could say something like that about Percival Goodman—that if he used sans serif to stir things up, maybe it didn’t mean that he was altogether sans seraph.

The author wishes to thank the Omaha Public Library’s reference staff for their great help in the preparation of this article. He will be happy, when possible, to furnish book and page references, for factual material cited herein.

***

So there is David Bittner’s article, carved in all its glory on Scarriet, to remain forever, side by side with Scarriet’s glorious poems. Amen. Paul Goodman, mentioned above in the article, is the illustrious author of Growing Up Absurd, and he and his brother advocated for an intimate, car-less Manhattan. Percival Goodman was not a God-man, but it seems he was an OK-man. Thank you, David Bittner, for a warm, funny, informative and delightful essay!

 

WE ALWAYS REJECT THE GOOD (A CHRISTMAS POEM)

image,

You seriously think it’s the bad you’re deflecting

And that you never find the good you’re expecting,

But if the world and yourself were truly understood,

Surprise—you spend your life rejecting the good.

You think in a moment when you should ponder for an hour,

Losing beauty because you do not plan,

You seek out the sweet whose result is sour,

You miss the good woman, you choose the wrong man.

The light pours in and you shut it out,

The world is endlessly beautiful, but you see it not.

You thought you were sensitive, but look! you’re a lout.

Too late! Good was here! Now you hate yourself a lot.

Too late! Too late! You never understood:

It was you that was bad. And the whole world was good.

 

 

 

 

WHAT IS LOVE?

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To not get trapped in words, words which inhibit love,

Focus on the picture, and do not say her name,

For many people know it, and they will use the same

Syllables that belong to her, and they, too, love

Her and her picture—if you hear them whispering her name,

You will be reminded how many love her like you do—oh, exactly the same!

You saying her name will be lost in a forest of cries.

How to love her? The lovely expression of intelligence in her eyes

Looks—not at you. Just so you know, without you, there is love

Between her and someone else, both issuing the most exquisite sighs,

Even if it is her looking at herself—can pictures love pictures?

Yes, I believe they can; hers, the love her love captures;

Her beauty is such, that it amazes herself. Not that your love dies,

Knowing she does not need you—but, yes, she is not looking in your eyes.

So how exactly will you write that poem that says, “Your beauty

Lives, it lives in love which loves and lives in love without me?”

You better start your poem of love now—

Before she gets up and walks away, seeing she doesn’t love you, and will never love you, anyhow.

I WAS THE POET

You brought your body to the table.

I brought romance and poetry.

You didn’t want to, or maybe you were not able

To utter a single line of poetry.

You never made up anything resembling poetry.

You had newsy opinions and that was it.

I made up stories for you. I convinced you for awhile

That you were a poet without poems, that you were a poet in ways that really counted,

Because you loved nature, but I could tell, just by your smile,

You didn’t believe in anything that I was saying, even when I said

That saying wasn’t anything.  You had this splendid aspect about you that cannot be explained.

You got very upset, once, when I held an umbrella over you when it rained.

I love to think, but you hated to “analyze” anything, and that gave me fits.

I was the poet. But I could tell: You thought all I thought about was your tits.

 

OUTSIDE

IMG_20151210_080527_668-1

The design of outside—

The lake perfectly flat

And the sky—how does it create distance like that?—

Diminishes my poems’ pride.

The tiny houses, with breakfast inside,

And the morning news, these houses

Belong to the world outside—

Which eats away at my poems’ pride.

I know you pretty well—

I don’t think you would deride

My poems. But the truth is, I can already tell

By the pride inside, I’m going to hell.

 

YOU PRODUCE NO BEAUTY

You produce no beauty,
But are the beautiful one;
A flower without a seed,
A want without a need,
A cold and cunning sun.

You make a lovely picture,
In high-heels and black-brown hair—
But that’s a false picture, without intention, or care.

You move without a conscience, a spasmodic will.
You once ran to stay with me,
Now you run away from me.
A mountain soul weeps before a dark and silent hill.

You drew me in: a beautiful accident,
A beautiful burning which came, burning; and, burning, went.
Was there death in you, before you were sent?

I saw you in the custom house, I saw you in the square,
I saw you at the florist.
But none had seen you there.

You produce no love,
But are the lovely one,
A sky with a sunset per minute
But never any sun.
You once ran to me.
Now you only run.

I was the high card sent to your winning hand,
But you folded; you had no courage or confidence
(You never had a winning hand),
A bluff took all your pleasure, a bluff took all your land.

You are the beautiful one, with beautiful shape if you stand or sit,
Who announces to the world: “This is it.”

A rainfall never falling on root or leaf,
A sigh never landing on a fond ear,
A tear never falling for another; just for yourself, a tear,
Your beauty never making a beautiful belief.

You produce no beauty,
You produce no song.
How can it be that poetry
Could be so wrong?

 

I MISSED YOU ON THE TRAIN

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No, not to die,

But to sleep, forever,

With a restless, curious eye

Staring aghast at dreams!

More real than life and pain—

People and things I saw, I see, again.

The only real that’s real is the real which seems.

 

I missed you on the train.

The loudest dream

Sounded in my ears.

I missed the train

And saw it pull away—

But without agony or tears—

I love my dreams

More than life and pain.

The only real that’s real is the real which seems.

SINCE SHE WON’T BE WON

Since she won’t be won, I’ll win the world.

And when the world understands me,

It will be okay that she has banned me,

This woman, pretty and silly like a girl

Who I loved. If the crowds shout, hurray!

Will it hurt me, that as I hear their cheers,

She, in her loneliness, haughtily turns away?

She never gets what she wants, and her tears

Do not come easily, for she accepts

That her world has everything that’s wrong.

Oh God, how I loved her! But gradually, by unseen steps,

I realized she was bad for me, and my song.

But love finds every reason to love and will love

The very thing reason says should not be loved.

When love and reason diverge in the wood,

The trees becomes lonelier and strange

As one watches reason, not looking back,

Stride through trees, and over the mountains, away.

Love will not hear of wrong. Love, as love, has no lack.

Though love lasted a moment, it will always be,

Faithful to gardens: green, in their green tranquility.

Tomorrow I’ll remember that I loved her today:

In my faith to infants, and faith, faith that all who are faithful will stay.

 

POETRY AND FEMALE BEAUTY

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To some, probably to many, if not all, this topic of “poetry and female beauty” might seem just a silly exercise, a vain excuse to draw nonsensical and vain conclusions of the most deluded and pitiful kind.

Can anyone seriously believe that “poetry” and “female beauty” have anything to do with each other?

Haven’t we long advanced past such antiquated notions?

Well, yes.  If by “advanced,” we mean too sophisticated to be interesting to anyone.

This is why poetry is dead.  Not dead to you and me, of course.  But dead to them. The public.

But who can blame them?  They have no idea what poetry is.

And yet, let us not be disheartened.  Follow my reasoning.

There are two ways to look at poetry, and today we champion one, and discard the other.

The one we champion is: poetry is either a certain, linguistic-mathematical, thing-in-itself (a sonnet has 14 lines, etc) or it is a special way of expressing whatever the poet wants to express—some kind of meaning (or non-meaning) in some kind of emotional (or non-emotional) manner.

Lyric or avant-garde, this is the view the vast majority of serious poets and critics champion: a poem has both a “form” on one hand, and a “say whatever you want” content on the other.

The one we discard is this: Life is what creates the poem; the poem itself determines neither its form nor its content—life, as everyone knows it and lives it, does.

In as much as “female beauty” is important to life, “poetry and female beauty” is a more vivid, and more valid, description of what poetry is, or might be, than the term, “poetry.”

One can speak volumes, of course, volumes and volumes, should one choose to describe “poetry.”  And one will have the advantage of describing “poetry” with numerous examples.

This “advantage,” however, has one problem: there will be so many examples, and poetry will be defined in so many ways, that “what a poem actually is” will disappear. On account of it being everything. 

And think about it.  Isn’t this how poetry ends up being described these days?  It can jingle and rhyme. It can be prose. It can be brief. It can be long.  It can be anything.

And what does all this finally mean for “poetry?”

It has no definition. It doesn’t exist.

But once we attach “female beauty” to “poetry,” as completely foolish as this might seem, we are actually bringing poetry back to itself, restoring its definition, placing it back in reality, so that they (the public) have a chance of appreciating it and enjoying it, again.

The idea of “female beauty” is a fertile one.  It is an endlessly interesting topic and generates far more excitement than, well…. “poetry.”

Poetry has always done best for itself when it plays a minor, supporting role, when it surrenders its proud title and makes itself small.  Famous poems and poets become famous not because of the poetry—but always from something else.

Shakespeare: A great poet, maybe the greatest, but not best known for poetry.  One can go right down the line and see what we mean, whether it is Charles Bukowski (bar life) or Homer (war, adventure) or Dante (Hell, Beatrice).  Does anyone describe Bukowski by citing how he used iambic pentameter? Or how Bukowksi wrote about everything under the sun?  No.  Bukowski is completely defined in the public’s mind by the narrow content of his work.  Would anyone care about Dante if all we knew about him were his verse forms?

This, one might object, is only how the crowds see these poets.  Well, yes.  But we can’t forget that.

Secondly, Plato looked at poetry from the standpoint of his ideal Republic, from the standpoint of society: poetry is not some separately defined thing; it is an extension of what humans do, and that includes lying, propaganda, frightening people, and unnecessarily exciting people—stirring up emotions in ways they shouldn’t be stirred up. And this whole approach—which looks upon poetry warily as an aspect of life—belongs to this view that is now discarded.  Why is it discarded?  Because we think Plato was unkind to poetry, so we have discarded Plato—and his whole way of thinking about poetry.  But what have we done, in discarding how Plato felt about poetry? Plato idolized and feared poetry—he was in awe of it; it isn’t just that he didn’t trust it; he was mesmerized by it, the way some of us are mesmerized by female beauty.  By discarding Plato’s view, we are not really in favor of poetry; we are actually rejecting all that makes poetry dangerous, untrustworthy—and fascinating.

The poetry that we mistakenly put in our Republic today is defined so vaguely that it has no teeth, no interest, at all!

For here’s the thing: it isn’t that poetry should be good or bad; it is that there should be passionate feelings on whether it is good or bad.

What are the poet’s prospects today?

To teach poetry in school, which is to politely ill-define it into non-existence.

So the poets themselves are destroying poetry—while an increasingly bored public walks away.

The problem that poetry faces as a popular art form these days is that it is not bad enough to be banned by society, nor good enough to be embraced by society—and for the simple, obvious reason that no one knows what it is.

Now it is true, that we do, of course, hear of poets imprisoned, or even killed, in totalitarian regimes, but in every case we know that it was because of something that was said in the poetry, not because of the poetry.

Poets may take heart in hearing of poets banned and murdered: see! I am important! I am dangerous!

But the truth is, politics gets people killed; politics, not poetry, is always the reason; otherwise, poetry would sell, and attract large audiences and be a volatile, ecstatic essence—but it is not.

Certain kinds of politics and music are traditionally Dionysian, and often banned by society. Poetry may be cool, but, unfortunately, it is not hot.

Poets who practice poetry outside academia strive to make it “cool.” But the poetry of cool tends to finally be like the poetry of school—it is that poetry which aspires to “everything,” and which dilutes audience expectation, so that in the end, it is nothing.

People go to a comedy club to laugh. People watch the news to be informed. People go to a music club to dance.

People go to a poetry reading to…

And in that pause, in that ‘what do they go to a poetry reading for?’ is the entire problem.

And even within that fatal uncertainty of expectation, if people do have a real sense that in poetry there is, or might be, a superior entertainment, they will only be turned off all the more, since nothing makes people more uncomfortable than to be forced to experience what is vaguely superior. It is just as off-putting as a vague feeling of inferiority.

The operating word here is “vague.”

A narrow, defined, superiority is one thing, but a vague, all-inclusive superiority makes one think of a priest and solemn music and the occasional chuckle—perhaps the kind and wise priest has a sense of humor—and now, even here, religion has its attractions of a definite sort, and the key word is priest, who interprets God, and okay, we get it, we know exactly what that is. Religion is what one takes the family to, it is concerned with a philosophy of life: anyone, without feeling strange or self-conscious, can be certain in their mind what a religious ceremony is.

Thus, its popularity.

But if people are truly indifferent to anything, whether it is music or religion or poetry, it is because they are not sure what it is. If they do like a religious ceremony, they like it for a very specific reason: the music, the food, the dressing up, the solemn atmosphere, the chance for family gossip: something very specific and known.

But poetry, because it is so widely and vaguely defined, is, to both commoner and sophisticate alike, absolutely unknown. That is the whole problem.

As we have demonstrated, the poets are responsible for killing poetry, and they are doing so every single day, both inside and outside academia, with every book they publish, with every poem they write, and with every poetry reading they give, because of the scattered and ill-defined nature of poetry’s existence, dilute and invisible and depressing, and, increasingly so. This must stop.

And why are there so many bad poets? And people say they like them out of politeness! The ultimate art form of truth has been shackled to empty politeness!

The micro-issue of so many bad poets is directly related to the macro-issue of the ill-defined and utterly unknown nature of poetry. The writers of poetry are hesitant—of course!—they literally don’t know what they are writing.

But the poets should know what they are writing–in terms of pleasing a public, and a critic.

Poets are un-writing poetry, and poets are further destroying poetry because they fear the Critic, which brings us back to Plato, the greatest Critic, who the poets have fearfully tossed out, and banned. Ban criticism, however, and you ban poetry.

The Critic knows how to humble poetry, and this is crucial; for remember how we said that poetry always succeeds in actual practice when it plays a supporting role?

The solution to poetry’s vagueness is not to fanatically hyper-define a poem as a thing in-itself. We need to deftly add something to poetry, which will give it a new and grounded definition.

So poetry needs to become part of life. It needs ceremony and definition. It needs the equivalent of a flute girl, who is always, reliably there. And if the flute garners more attention than Plato, or the poet, too bad. The poet or the philosopher is simply out of luck.

The audience must absolutely know what to expect, every time. Is this possible?

And now lastly, and thirdly, we come to the whole objection many have for mentioning “female beauty” at all—but this is part of its whole interest.  One could easily object: aren’t men complete idiots in the way they swoon over superficial looks?  This causes a great deal of unhappiness. Why do you want to encourage this?

It is not that we want to encourage this shallow, but prevalent, excitement and interest in female beauty. We want to use it, and refine it in the process. For shouldn’t poetry be able to refine what is crude in life by sweetly and gently embracing it?

Religion must be moral and music must be sensual, and isn’t poetry that which occupies the perfect middle ground between the two? Pardon us if we seem too much like a Critic here, but is this not true?

And again, if the solution of “female beauty” seems silly, it is only because poetry as it is practiced today, both in and outside school, in all its solemn, many-headed seriousness, has become an empty bore to poetry’s potential public.

So in place of all this vagueness, why shouldn’t we introduce “female beauty” to “poetry,” if it will help make poetry popular, and rekindle the opportunity of sweet fame?

Why shouldn’t we introduce this principle:

Every true poet is a muse.

Why should poets remain oppressed and crushed by all that is vague? Better to be defined by what we are, and who we are, truthfully. Poetry needs to escape its abstract blackboard.

Why shouldn’t poetry be this:

Her.

Sad eyes, a humble spirit, devoted to family and friends, a brilliantly inventive but unschooled poet, writing poetry from childhood, not knowing why, with a model’s looks which could equal international renown, but looks greater than a model’s because informed by something sweeter and greater, captured and bound in a rapturous sense of poetry: an unconscious muse, a deeply conscious poet?

Poetry would be better for this.  For what is “poetry?”—word of no meaning!

Let poetry, instead, be the poetry she inspires.

And then we will know what poetry is.

 

 

 

YOU’RE JUST SAYING THAT

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To love someone is torture

Because we worry about the future—

This moment not big enough to contain our love;

This moment too small to contain wanting someone

Again and again and again.

When I talked to you,

It was only to read your mind.

We are helpless when we love someone;

It is so important for our lover to be kind.

We must find out, and the only way to find out

Is to get inside their mind.

Impossible! So the body must do.

My desire—pity my desire!—is sadly chasing the infinity of you.

Pictures are better; and, better still,

When you don’t look at the camera; you are beautiful

In the oblivion of yourself, looking upwards, at a future state

Of sweet drift, where nothing is heavy or locked; not a shadow, not a doubt, not a gate—

You, floating to me for a kiss, eyes finding mine, smiling, saying, darling, I know why you are late.

 

 

 

 

 

 

IT’S EASY TO BE DISAPPOINTED

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It’s easy to be disappointed by the life of the mind.

Too much thought can make the body absolutely blind.

But come with me, and I’ll show you how

Imagination can make me love you now

Who hated you before,

And you will dazzle, even though, in truth, you are a big fat bore.

I will be in love and it will not be an act;

It will be the mind presenting syllabification and tact;

It will be poetry refusing to be separate from poetry’s fact;

It will be cunning pressing against your breast,

And weeping. For mind together with emotion is the best.

 

 

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