Category Archives: American Poets

Jericho Brown’s ‘The Tradition’

The poetry of Jericho Brown is like a magnet. It always pulls you in. His third collection is firmly upholding the tradition.
I love Copper Canyon’s books; soft & gentle pages carress’d by a lip-gloss cover lending a certain bubble-bath quality to the reading of one of their poets. But ultimately it is what is on the page that counts. First things first, Jericho Brown is a poet, a real, poet, he has the elixir in his veins. He also possesses a curious voice, like a multi-sharded cylinder standing steadfast in a storm. That storm is America, its culture & its questionable past.

His first two volumes were received with high praise & deep respect across the English-speaking world, the second of which, New Testament (2014) won the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award. The Tradition is eagerly awaited, then, & does not disappoint. In places it even exceeds expectations; the lyrical jaundice of Flower, the killer jibes of truth within Bullet Points & numerous moments of the highest pathos & beauty, as in the closing couplet of The Microscopes;

A region I imagine you imagine when you see
A white women walking with a speck like me

The chief pillars of Jericho’s creative temple are his colour, his family & his sexuality. His mother, grandmother, brother & kids all have cameos & something important to contribute to both the poet’s life & our understanding of the world. These very personal takes are full of raw remembrance temper’d by a supreme sense of post-Millennium reality.

……………………………….They remind
Me of black people who see the movie
About slaves and exit saying how they would
Have fought to whip Legree with his own whip
And walked away from the plantation,
Their eyes raised to the sun, without going blind.

On a number of occasions I was very much reminded of a poem by Gwendolyn Brooks, Negro Hero; the pitch & balance of the wordplay are almost identical – is he her spiritual inheritor, perhaps? Jericho’s art presents the Apollonian & the Dionysical extremes of poetic composition; from technical stanza formation full of control’d & order’d musings, to solid blocks of Wolfean streams of consciousness. The latter sort are often triggered by the smallest things, such as the two copulating rabbits on his lawn, providing the catalyst for an introspective journey into the failings of his own love life. Then, with his title poem, Jericho proves he can turn not just a good sonnet, but an absolutely bangin’ one.

Also a sonnet of sorts are his five Duplex poems, seven couplets where the second line is the same as the first line in the following couplet. From innovation comes mastery, and Jericho is growing into his role as both a teacher in his tactile environment, & a clear-cadenced, beautiful poet-teacher for the planet. Indeed, his academic background – studying at Harvard, teaching at Emery – seems to be a fertile field for inspiring such embedded nuances as his use of Homeric simile in the opening to As a Human Being;

There is the happiness you have
And the happiness you deserve.
They sit apart from each other
The way you and your mother
Sat on opposite ends of the sofa
After an ambulance came to take
Your father away.

Jericho Brown is a philosopher-poet, stood on a crag overlooking the humanity of America, striking the rocks, drawing lightning into his penstaff & tossing electrical ejecta onto his page. The Tradition delights on first reading & invites further study. Each poem contains a different beam of inspiration wassailing from Jericho’s kaleidoscopic soul, altho’ the colors aren’t garish, its too moody a piece for that. This is an extremely intelligent collection, filled with both unpretentious flair & flashes of Faustian confidence. Roll on Brown’s 4th book.

March 7th, 2019

Lee Ann Roripaugh’s ‘Tsunami vs. the Fukushima 50’

I thoroughly enjoy a themed collection of poetry, the Vishnu Upanishads, Ted Hughes’ Crow, even John Maserfield’s Salt-Water Poems & Ballads; so went into the reading of Lee Ann Roripaugh’s Tsunami vs. the Fukushima 50 with an appreciative bias. There is a certain nuance to the form which I enjoy when done well – it is not easy to make a themed collection hold a reader’s attention, for oftentimes a poet will get lost in the cul-de-sac housing schemes of their inspirations. However, ‘Tsunami’ actually transcends the form, a thought-splintered foray into the plosive destruction & pitiless aftermath of the March 2011 Tohoku earthquake & tsunami, which led to the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster.

pulverized cities flung back
to water like sprinkled furikake

her radio-waved wake
an awful flower blossoming

Roripaugh tells the story through a personified tsunami, its effect on nature, & the human fall-out of tragic events both water-slaughtery & wrought by the radioactive chaos after Fukushima. As a poet, her wordplay is practically phenomenal, combining mimesi in startling combinations, like a talented skald getting drunk in a European court, coining exciting new kennings from the play-stuff of their exotic surrounds. In her opening poem, for example, we see the ‘annihilatrix’ ‘Mechatsunami’ described as ‘shellacked wings unclung / from stacticky black elytra.‘ I mean that is just a stunning couplet.

I’ve seen many terrible things:
cages filled with withered songbirds,
horses left to starve in their stalls,
an abandoned puppy that grew
too big for the chain around its neck

As the collection unfolds we are treated to a delicate diaspora of delights; lovely lists explore subjects like the Goblin Market of Rossetti; a soul captivated by nature paints what it sees with a vivid serenity; the terrible aspects of human loss rip thro’ our mentalities with a single spin of a shuriken-phrase. The following passage is a perfect example of Rosipaugh’s ability to weave the epic waste of life & liberty into her visionary free verse;

at first, I concentrated very hard
on trying to see my feet, to know
if I was a ghost or not, but when
sneakers filled with foot bones
began to surface in the Pacific,
I stopped thinking these thoughts

My favourite poem in the collection was ‘Hulk Smash’ a cinematic & pathosean dirge thro’ a father’s pathetic quest to find his missing daughter in ‘a toxic garbage dump’ where he searched for her ‘every month / in the five-hour increments / allowed by radiation guidelines.‘ In the age of Netflix, this is what modern poetry should really be doing, making us all mind movies, & Roripaugh activates the mental mechanisms sublimely. When the collection is knitted together, the overall effect is rather like the Lusiads of Luís Vaz de Camões, an epyllionic journey full of constant stimuli, where at one point we may lament ‘the gwa gwa gaw of frogs / stopped from invisible ponds‘ & at another hear a young lassie called Hisako declare;

it’s not like I ever asked
to come here and live
in this drafty prefab box
of corrugated metal
with my silent old granny

By the end of the book, I felt I had just been the weightless passenger on Roripaugh’s precious back as she free-soloed one of the minor slopes of Parnassus. Will she attempt one of the trickier faces? I do hope so, because her talent is unique. I cannot think of a poet since that of the anonymous composer of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle’s ‘Brunanburh’ entry for 937 that has been able to condense so much of the aforementioned kenning quality into their lines. Roripaugh is also a master of moods, whose multiple shades spiral with voluminous variety as the story & stories are told. This is a book of high innovation on a level that you’re not quite sure where, but you know its happening – an excellent, excellent piece.

May 5th, 2019

The Poetry of Muhammad Ali

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Clay standing over the defeated Sonny Liston

The warrior poet is one of the more remarkable figures in history. In the English-speaking world, their zenith came with the horrors of World War One, when Siegfried Sassoon, Wilfred Owen & others veered away from patronising the soldier’s noble death with high-blown lyricism, & got down to expositing the true danger & desperation of combat. Fifty years later the world encountered a different kind of warrior poet, the boxer called Cassius Clay / Muhammad Ali who like a high-ranked bardic-trained Gaulish druid passed judgement on the age of Civil Rights.

I am America.
I am the part you won’t recognize.
But get used to me:
Black, confident, cocky.
My name, not yours.
My religion, not yours.
My goals, my own.
Get used to me.
Muhammad Ali


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LAST NIGHT I HAD A DREAM

Last night I had a dream, When I got to Africa,
I had one hell of a rumble.
I had to beat Tarzan’s behind first,
For claiming to be King of the Jungle.
For this fight, I’ve wrestled with alligators,
I’ve tussled with a whale.
I done handcuffed lightning
And throw thunder in jail.
You know I’m bad.
just last week, I murdered a rock,
Injured a stone, Hospitalized a brick.
I’m so mean, I make medicine sick.
I’m so fast, man,
I can run through a hurricane and don’t get wet.
When George Foreman meets me,
He’ll pay his debt.
I can drown the drink of water, and kill a dead tree.
Wait till you see Muhammad Ali.
Written by Muhammad Ali | Create an image from this poem
There live a great man named Joe
There live a great man named Joe
who was belittled by a loudmouth foe.
While his rival would taunt and tease
Joe silently bore the stings.
And then fought like gladiator in the ring.


CLAY COMES OUT TO MEET LISTON

Clay comes out to meet Liston
and Liston starts to retreat,
if Liston goes back an inch farther
he’ll end up in a ringside seat.
Clay swings with his left,
Clay swings with his right,
Look at young Cassius
carry the fight
Liston keeps backing, but there’s not enough room,
It’s a matter of time till Clay lowers the boom.
Now Clay lands with a right,
What a beautiful swing,
and the punch raises the Bear
clean out of the ring.
Liston is still rising and the ref wears a frown,
For he can’t start counting
till Sonny goes down.
Now Liston is disappearing from view,
The crowd is going frantic,
But radar stations have picked him up,
Somewhere over the Atlantic.
Who would have thought
when they came to the fight?
That they’d witness the launching
of a human satellite.
Yes the crowd did not dream,
when they put up the money,
That they would see
a total eclipse of the Sonny.


The boy could fight too – sheer poetry in the ring, but he actually created a great deal of interesting, funny verse. Inspired by the barber-shop banter he heard in his youth, & driven through a supra-arrogant ‘I’m the greatest’ persona based upon a wrestler called Gorgeous George, the world became hooked on every word the young Cassius said – & he knew it, touching an entire planet thro’ his simple lyricism enabled by his global persona. “Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee.”


ALI V JOE FRAZIER

Ding! Ali comes out to meet Frazier
But Frazier starts to retreat
If Frazier goes back any further
He’ll wind up in a ringside seat

Ali swings to the left
Ali swings to the right
Look at the kid
Carry the fight

Frazier keeps backing
But there’s not enough room
It’s a matter of time
Then Ali lowers the boom

Now Ali lands to the right
What a beautiful swing!
And deposits Frazier
Clean out of the ring

Frazier’s still rising
But the referee wears a frown
For he can’t start counting
Till Frazier comes down

Now Frazier disappears from view
The crowd is getting frantic
But our radar stations have picked him up
He’s somewhere over the Atlantic

Who would have thought that
When they came to the fight
That they would have witnessed
The launching of a coloured satellite!


After becoming involved with the controversial ‘Nation of Islam’ group in the 60s, Clay changed his name to Muhammad Ali, which will stick unto eternity. His legacy is being forgotten by the millennial generation, unfortunately, as is his poetry. But there is a clear case that for while he was at the peak of his powers, more people heard, were touched by, & recited back his poetry than other individual on the planet before or since. Maybe not a better poet than Shakespeare, but definitely, during his hey-days, bigger!


ON THE ATTICA PRISON RIOTS OF 1971

He said breedom – Better Now

Better far— from all I see—
To die fighting to be free
What more fitting end could be?

Better surely than in some bed
Where in broken health I’m led
Lingering until I’m dead

Better than with prayers and pleas
Or in the clutch of some disease
Wasting slowly by degrees

Better than a heart attack
or some dose of drug I lack
Let me die by being Black

Better far that I should go
Standing here against the foe
Is the sweeter death to know

Better than the bloody stain
On some highway where I’m lain
Torn by flying glass and pane

Better calling death to come
Than to die another dumb
Muted victim in the slum

Better than of this prison rot
If there’s any choice I’ve got
Kill me here on the spot

Better far my fight to wage
Now while my blood boils with rage
Lest it cool with ancient age

Better vowing for us to die
Than to Uncle Tom and try
Making peace just to live a lie

Better now that I say my sooth
I’m gonna die demanding truth
While I’m still akin to youth

Better now than later on
Now that fear of death is gone
Never mind another dawn.

This poem was recited on air while in Ireland & depicts a hostage protest for better conditions which led to 29 prisoners being shot by soldiers. After reading the poem, Muhammad Ali related the struggle of the Afro-Americans for freedom and justice to the struggle of the Irish against British imperialism


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THE LEGEND OF MUHAMMAD ALI

This is the legend of Muhammad Ali,
The greatest fighter that ever will be.
He talks a great deal and brags, indeed.
Of a powerful punch and blinding speed.
Ali fights great, he’s got speed and endurance.
If you sign to fight him, increase your insurance.
Ali’s got a left, Ali’s got a right;
If he hits you once, you’re asleep for the night
To make America the greatest is my goal
To make America the greatest is my goal,
So I beat the Russians, and I beat the Pole,
and for the USA won the medal of gold.
Italians said: “You’re Greater than the Cassius of old´´.
We like your name, we like your game,
So make Rome your home if you will.
I said I appreciate your kind hospitality,
But the USA is my country still,
‘Cause they’re waiting to welcome me in Louisville.


In the following interview, the controversial 1975 one with Playboy Magazine, Ali talks about his poetry & his newfound love of ‘sayings’

PLAYBOY:
Since a lot of people are wondering about this, level with us. Do you write all the poetry you pass off as your own?

ALI:
Sure I do. Hey, man, I’m so good I got offered a professorship at Oxford. I write late at night, after the phones stop ringin’ and it’s quiet and nobody’s around—all great writers do better at night. I take at least one nap during the day, and then I get up at two in the morning and do my thing. You know, I’m a worldly man who likes people and action and I always like cities, but now when I find myself in a city, I can’t wait to get back to my training camp. Neon signs, traffic, noise and people—all that can get you crazy. It’s funny, because I was supposed to be torturing myself by building a training camp out in the middle of no where in northern Pennsylvania, but this is good livin’—fresh air, well water, quiet and country views. I thought I wouldn’t like it at all but that at least I’d work a lot instead of being in the city, where maybe I wouldn’t train hard enough. Well, now I like it better than being in any city. This is a real good setting for writin’ poetry and I write all the time, even when I’m in training. In fact, I wrote one up here that’s better than any poem in the world.

PLAYBOY:
How do you know that?

ALI:
My poem explains truth, so what could be better? That’s the name of it, too,

Truth:
The face of Truth is open, the eyes
of Truth are bright
The lips of Truth are ever closed,
the head of Truth is upright
The breast of Truth stands forward,
the gaze of Truth is straight
Truth has neither fear nor doubt,
Truth has patience to wait.
The words of Truth are touching,
the voice of Truth is deep
The law of Truth is simple: All you
sow, you reap.
The soul of Truth is flaming, the
heart of Truth is warm
The mind of Truth is clear and
firm through rain and storm.
Facts are only its shadow, Truth
stands above all sin.
Great be the battle of life—Truth
in the end shall win.
The image of Truth is the Honorable
Elijah Muhammad, wisdom’s message is his rod
The sign of Truth is the crescent
and the soul of Truth is God.
Life of Truth is eternal
Immortal is its past
Power of Truth shall endure
Truth shall hold to the last.
It’s a masterpiece, if I say so myself.

But poems aren’t the only thing I’ve been writing. I’ve also been setting my mind to sayings. You want to hear some?

PLAYBOY:
Do we have a choice?

ALI:
You listen up and maybe I’ll make you as famous as I made Howard Cosell. “Wars on nations are fought to change maps, but wars on poverty are fought to map change.” Good, huh? “The man who views the world at 50 the same as he did at 20 has wasted 30 years of his life.” These are words of wisdom, so pay attention, Mr. Playboy. “The man who has no imagination stands on the earth he has no wings, he cannot fly.” Catch this: “When we are right, no one remembers, but when we are wrong, no one forgets. Watergate!” I really like the next one: “Where is man’s wealth? His wealth is in his knowledge. If his wealth was in the bank and not in his knowledge, then he don’t possess it—because it’s in the bank!” You got all that?

PLAYBOY:
Got it, Muhammad.

ALI:
Well, there’s more. “The warden of a prison is in a worse condition than the prisoner himself. While the body of the prisoner is in captivity, the mind of the warden is in prison!” Words of wisdom by Muhammad Ali. This is about beauty: “It is those who have touched the inner beauty that appreciate beauty in all its forms.” I’m even going to explain that to you. Some people will look at a sister and say, “She sure is ugly.” Another man will see the same sister and say, “That’s the most beautiful woman I ever did see.” How do you like this one: “Love is a net where hearts are caught like fish”?

PLAYBOY:
Isn’t that a little corny?

ALI:
I knew you wasn’t smart as soon as I laid eyes on you. But I know you’re gonna like this one, which is called Riding on My Horse of Hope: “Holding in my hands the reins of courage, dressed in the armor of patience, the helmet of endurance on my head, I started on my journey to the land of love.” Whew! Muhammad Ali sure goes deeper than boxing.


Ali ‘the poet’ must also go down on record as the author of the shortest poem in the language. According to  Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations, the shortest poem in the English language was Lines on the Antiquity of Microbes by Strickland Gillilan, which went, ‘Adam / Had’em.’ Ali beat this hands down with his sexy & supercilious, ‘Me / We.’ Yes, Muhammad Ali, you truly were the greatest.


 

1-11-2019

The Tiara of Theodore Roethke

My strength is the strength
Of ten young things: I am with you:
In that first moment of delight
When you look from the page, no longer lost
In the maze of youth
Roethke

Just as the Islamic world absorbed the ancient scholarship of its Greek conquests, & just as the European renaissance repeated the assimilations, so too does Poetry have a duty to regurgitate itself from time to time, when the spirit of renewal strips away the evolutions of time, leaving shiny new versions of moments of classical brilliance. It is with this as my leading inclination that I now turn to the writings of Theodore Heubner Roethke; a very fine-minded, Twentieth Century, Pulitzer-prize winning, American, post-modernist poet. Very much respected by his peers, James Dickey once opined that he did not, ‘see anyone else that has the kind of deep, gut vitality that Roethke’s got. Whitman was a great poet, but he’s no competition for Roethke.’ Dickey was surely here analysing the poetry of the poet, but what I want to study here are a curious collection of whispy musings on the art of poetry which Roethke stuff’d his notebooks with in the mid-twentieth century. In this same period he was also an English teacher, & these spontaneous philosophartistical outpourings represent some kind of cross-pollinating hybrid of human thought.

During the composition of these maxims, Roethke was too rush’d by teaching to collate his thoughts into a more conventional order. ‘I’m teaching well,’ he wrote in 1947, ‘if I can judge by the response – but haven’t done one damned thing on my own. It’s no way to live—to go from exhaustion to exhaustion.’ He seems have snatch’d at those scatter’d moments of focuss’d thought, scribbling them down in the depths of his office, to be discovered by his colleague, David Wagoner, upon the death of Roethke in 1963. Taking on the role of the Litologist (literary archaeologist) Wagoner dived into the 277 spiral notebooks full of fragmenting imagination, distilling them into a collection called Straw for the Fire (1972).

A half century later I intend to further the curation process begun by Wagoner by a secondary process of distillation. My endeavour shall be to select & reorder the most quintessentially poetic of Roethke’s maxims, in order to create some kind of spiritual map of the poetical experience entwined – with some magnitude & immediacy – with the entire universality of the poetic arts. As I do so, I hope to go against, as Roethke himself once said, ‘the academic tendency to rest: that profound impulse to sit down.’ Echoing the ‘garland’ collections of elegiac sayings espoused by the Tamils, I have named the collection’s form the ‘Tiara,’ in which are contained the choicest jewels dug up from the mines of mental ferment, which are polished & set in a smooth & solid structure.

‘The desire to express certain ideas,’ wrote John Cruikshank, ‘in as brief & memorable a form as possible is a long-standing human impulse.’ The aphorism has had many hey-days; the Kural of the Sangam age; the Roman epigrammical penchant as dictated by Tacitus & Martial; the intellectual epithetical flourishings of the seventeenth century French salon. In such brief capsules of literary exhortation, the qualities of elegance, accuracy & conciseness are held paramount. It is those maxims of Roethke which possess this triad of excellence the most which I have chosen for my materielle. Respecting Roethke’s deal love of teaching, I hope to have assembl’d the maxims in a way that will maximise the effects of the impartation of the poet’s empirical mind upon those who never had the pleasure of sharing a classroom with the man. Instead let us – & by us I mean every waking poet from now until the last gatherings of human time – listen to the everliving word-sage speak as if we were adepts gather’d at the naked feet of the wise Tamil sage; as if we were a young poet receiving Rilke’s letters of advice; as if we were one of the lucky students in the wartime poetry classes of Michigan State.

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BECOMING A POET

The young artist: there is no other kind of mind but my own

Poetry is the discovery of the legend of one’s youth.

There is an academic precept which says: never listen to the young. The reverse should be true: Listen, I say, & listen close, for from them – if they are real & alive – may we hear, however, faintly & distortedly – the true whispers from the infinite, the beckonings away from the dreadful, the gray life beating itself against the pitted concrete world.

The wisdom the young make holy be their living

We’re not going to split the heart of reality: not until the third semester.

And then there is the more honest & charitable mentor who regards poetry as a kind of emotional & spiritual wild oats of the young, a phase of adolescence to be pass’d thro’ quickly – & anything said to shake him out of this emotional orgy is all to the good.

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THE SPIRIT OF POETRY

The eye, of course, is not enough. But the outer eye serves the inner, that’s the point.

Basis of poetry is sensation: many poets today deny sensation, or have no sensation: the cult of the torpid.

Hearing poetry starts the psychological mechanism of prayer

The intuitive poet often begins most felicitously, but raptures are hard to sustain.

O keep me perpetual, muse, ears roaring with many things

Good poets wait for the muse, the unconscious to spring something loose, to temper & test the promptings of the intuition with the pressures of craftsmanship: they can think while they sing.

Simple & profound: how little there is

Say to yourself: I will learn & treasure every good turn of speech ever made.

The intense profound sharp longing to make a true poem.

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THE ART OF POETRY

Perhaps no person can be a poet, or even can enjoy poetry, without a certain unsoundness of mind.

The nobility of my imagination is my theme: I have to let things shimmer.

The essence of poetry is to perish – that is to say be ‘understood.’

A ‘movement’ is a dead fashion.

The artist has several levels of life always available. If he falls to the ground with a theme or gets a ‘block,’ he can always return to life – a routine task.

This is the lazy man’s out often: I haven’t read it, therefore it does not exist.

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POETICAL TECHNIQUE

Poetry is not just a mere shuffling of dead words or even a corralling of live ones.

A musical ear is a gift from nature: but like all gifts it can be develop’d

Rhythm: creates a pattern into which our mental faculties fall; this cycle of expectancy calls for surprises. The poet, at least the good poet, provides them.

My design in short poems: to create the situation, & the mood as quickly as possible: etch it in & have done; but is that enough? No. There must be symbolical force, weight, or a gravity of tone.

Play with it – The language has its cusses & fusses just like us.

Diction: one of the problems of diction, in certain kinds of poems, is to get all the words within a certain range of feeling; all elemental, all household, etc. etc. Often a very good figure from another level or range will jar.

The decasyllabic line is fine for someone who wants to meditate – or maunder. Me, I need something to jump in: hence the spins, & shifts, the songs, the rants, the howls. The shorter line can still serve us: it did when English was young, & when we were children.

To make it so good that there will be no actors will ever act it right: but none can be so bad, in any windy barn, to foul it up entirely.
It’s the damned almost-language that’s hardest to break away from: the skill’d words of the literary poet

Did I beat the poem to death? Did I worry the material like a mad dog?

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THE POET

We can love ourselves & literature with equal intensity – that’s our contribution

A poet is judg’d, in part, by the influences he resists

Puts his thoughts in motion – the poet

A poet: someone who is never satisfied with saying one thing at a time

The poet must have a sense not only of what words were & are, but also what they are going to be?

A poet must be a good reporter; but he must be something a good deal more.

Poet must first control, then dominate his medium

Maturity in a poet: when he no longer is concern’d with personal mortality… but whether the language dies.

There comes a time in the poet’s life when one personality, even with several sides, is not enough. Then he can go mad or become a dramatist.

There are so many ways of going to pot as a poet; so many pitfalls, so many snares & delusions.

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FORM IN POETRY

Remember: our deepest perceptions are a waste if we have no sense of form.

We must have the courage, as Kierkegaard says, to think a thought whole

Transcend that vision. What is first or early is easy to believe. But… it may enchain you.

The artist (not the would-be): you may have deep insights – but you also need the sense of form. Sometimes the possession of the first without the second may be tragic.

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CRITICISM

English poetry: mostly by ninnies, capable of fits & starts of ravishing feeling

The Victorians – they didn’t let enough go in or go out. They lived in ponds.

Some of these Limeys write as if they were falling over chairs

The ‘other’ poem in Yeats… had to set the stage for his best work. If he had not written at such length, he might not have been heard.

The lyric is almost forgotten in this time of sawing & snoring & scraping

One of the problems of the lyric poet is what to do with his spare time; & sometimes it becomes the community’s problems too. It worries people.

A bewildering bardling: no real feeling except a thin intense hatred of his contemporary superiors

A culture in which it is easier to publish a book about poetry than a book of poems

One of the subtlest tasks is the sifting from time. Some poems have that special sheen of contemporaneousness, the immediate glitter of fashion – & still survive.

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BAD POETRY

One of the virtues of good poetry is the fact that it irritates the mediocre

Not the stuff, but merely the stuffing, of real poetry. An anthology of abstractions from one of the less sure metaphysicians: a nowadays nausea.

Much to be learnt from bad poems

A wrenching of rhythms, verbal snorting; tootling on the raucous tin-ear, mechanized fancies: his poems have movement, sometimes they slide away from the subject.
Embroidering a few metaphors on his pale convictions

These fancy dandlers of mild epithets, graceless wittols hanging on the coattails of their betters. I can forget what they do until they forget to steal & start being themselves.

Those dreary language-arrangers. Don’t be ashamed if you belch when you try to sing

So many writers are an immense disappointment: they’re neurotic, grubby, cozy, frighten’d, eaten by their wits.

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WORLDLY ADVICE

Think with the wise, talk like the common man

When you begin to get good, you’ll arouse the haters of life

May my silences become more accurate

Live in a perpetual great astonishment

I can’t die now. There’s too much to do.

He was the master of the remark that insults everybody – including himself.

May 30th
2018

Bukowski’s Irrepressible Brilliance

Ignored by the larger mainstream anthologists of America, Charles Bukowski is the ultimate proletarian anti-poet, an American hero their establishment would rather not possess on account of the fact he is by far their best, or rather truest poet. His style was refreshingly honest, a Tu Fu of the Beats, inspired by the twentieth century ‘Poetic Revolution,’ when poetry had, in Bukowski’s words, ‘turned from a diffuse and careful voice of formula and studied ineffectiveness to a voice of clarity and burnt toast and spilled loaves and me and you and the spider in the corner.’

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Among Bukowski’s massive, almost industrial, output I have found a poem of his which is, in relation to the convetional poetic spheres, just so brilliantly curveball. It is found in a collection entitled ‘Love Is A Dog From Hell,’ a whirlwind of poems dated 1974-77. The book is midway between the publication of our poet’s first collection, ‘Flower, Fist & Bestial Wail’ (1960) & his death in 1994; & may be seen as the highwater-mark of his career. In this period Bukowski’s star was very much on the ascendency; success in Europe, breakthrough interviews with Rolling Stone Magazine & an acceptance into the American poetical elite as a notorious enfant terrible. On 25th November 1974, Bukowski read in Santa Cruz alongside Gary Snyder & Allen Ginsburg, an event memorialized by Ric Reynolds, who described Bukowski as; ‘a man of genius, the first poet to cut through light and consciousness for two thousand years & these bastards dont even appreciate it.’

The mid-seventies also saw Bukowski engaged in a string of affairs with women; including Linda Lee Beighle, Pamela Miller – who becomes Nina in his short story, Workout – & Jane Manahattan – the Iris Hall of his Women. Of her time with Bukowski, Jane commented, ‘he was funny all day every day. A great love of life, & an enjoyment – always to be seeing the funny thing, & making a comment. he was a comedian.

The poems within ‘Love Is A Dog From Hell’ are both sexually visceral & brutally protagonistic, with an incredibly poised ‘cogito, ergo sum.‘ Here we have the American sonnet sequence to Laura, but of course fashion’d via fabulously free ‘verse libre’ & the even freer love of the sex-addl’d seventies. In one of the poems, ‘how to be a great writer,’ he declares at its opening the creative & spiritual ordination of the entire collection;

you’ve got to fuck a great many women
beautiful women
and write a few decent love poems.

Ever since the publication of his first poem, ‘Aftermath of a Lengthy Rejection Slip,’ in 1944 – at the age of 24 – the German-born Bukowski & his writing was dedicated to the holy trinity of Wein, Weib & Gesang – Wine, Women & Song. Thirty years later, his dedication to those core tenets was as strong as ever, only the delivery had changed to that of an ageing & cynical amourouse.

So to the poem I have chosen, artists: (Bukowski never respected the principle of capital letters), a classic laissez-faire love-affair with a groupie. Next to his omniscient genius – Bukowski almost breaks sweat telling us so – she is a minor writer, & not even that inspirational a lover. The scene is set for a droll masterpiece that could never find its way into an establishment canon, but for pure drama & in-the-moment magic it is unsurpass’d in all the poetry I have personally read. For the purposes of this essay I shall give the poem in full, adding a little critigloss in the interludes.


 

artists:

she wrote me for years.
“I’m drinking wine in the kitchen.
it’s raining outside. the children
are in school.”

she was an average citizen
worried about her soul, her typewriter
and her
underground poetry reputation

she wrote fairly well and with honesty
but only long after others had
broken the road ahead

In eleven lines Bukowski brilliantly introduces his muse. We know so much about her already; a bor’d mother who writes to differentiate herself from the hum-drum. In a damning piece of critique on both her style & the state of modern poetry, Bukowski portrays her quite ruthlessly as lagging far behind the original poets who have ‘broken the road ahead.’

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she’d phone me drunk at 2 a.m.
at 3 a.m.
while her husband slept

“it’s good to hear your voice,” she’d say.

“it’s good to hear your voice too” I’d say.

what the hell, you
know.

In this next segment, Bukowski introduces himself into the poem – he is always the star -, converging on illicit daft-o’clock phonecalls with his faraway ‘mistress.’ There is no background to these calls, but the not-knowing encourages our minds to calculate why? She is a poet of an underground scene, did they meet that way? Did they sleep together then, or are these late night calls the first sordid steps towards her infidelity. We get all of that from just five short lines, which are followed by five superbly brusque words in which Bukowski’s soul & voice are eternised. He’s up for it, why not, wouldn’t you?

she finally came down. I think it had
something to do with
The Chapparal Poets Society of California.
they had to elect officers. she phoned me
from their hotel

“I’m here,” she said, “we’re going to elect
officers.

“o.k., fine” I said, “get some good ones.”

I hung up

the phone rang again
“hey, don’t you want to see me?”

“sure,” I said, “what’s the address?”

With another piece of blasé indifference to his groupie – this time, given to his muse directly – Bukowski reaffirms all what he has been telling us about the situation. She is a poetess & she wants to see him, while he is completely indifferent to both her place in the poetry world & whether he gets to sleep with her or not. The Chaparral Society, by the way – Bukowski spelt it wrong – is the oldest and largest poetry organization in California, founded in the Los Angeles Area in 1939.

after she said goodby I jacked-off
changed my stockings
drank a half bottle of wine and
drove on out

they were all drunk and trying to
fuck each other.

I drove her back to my place.

she had on pink panties with
ribbons.

Here, in its most poetically pungent, is the visceral sexuality I mentioned earlier. What stands out the most, & what for me first shone a light on this poem’s architectural majesty, is the brevity & poetry contained in, ‘I drove her back to my place / she had on pink panties with ribbons.‘ This is all we are allowed to hear about their sexual union, delicately teasing us with what the poet secretly knows, but refuses to share, with just a hint of frilly lace to set minds racing & libidos rising.

we drank some beer and
smoked and talked about
Ezra Pound, then we
slept.
its no longer clear to
me whether I drove her to
the airport or
not

In this post-coital aftermath, Bukowski sounds almost bored with the scene – going through the motions. He was in his mid-fifities at the time, & one imagines hundreds of notches on his bedpost from literary groupies. Many, many beers & many, many conversations about Ezra Pound. He then reinforces our instinctive inquiry by completely forgetting the episode’s denoument. There is no teary farewell at the airport, his muse simply dissapears into the aether.

she still writes letters
and I answer each one
viciously
hoping to make her stop

In this short stanza we get a suggestion of the interplay between Bukowski & his muse – they have a relationship, the student-teacher-lover type – & it is the only moment when Bukowski shows any real humanity in the poem. The fact that he takes the time to answer her letters proves she’s got under his skin, when other groupies were simply swatted away. There is something about this lady that was incorrigibly annoying to Bukowski, but whose spirit he could never truly shake off.

someday she may luck into
fame like Erica
Jong. (her face is not as good
but her body is better)
and I’ll think,
my God, what have I done?
I blew it.
or rather: I Didn’t blow
it

meanwhile I have her box number
and I’d better inform her
that my second novel will be out in September.
that ought to keep her nipples hard
while I consider the posibility of
Francine du Plessix Gray.

The last two stanzas of Bukowski’s remarkable poem differ from the mental theatre of the earlier stanzas, launching the poem into the more philosophical chambers of its creator’s mind. He is free now to pronounce judgment on both the affair & the poem, & does so with a flourish of bravura. Two leading literary lionesses of the seventies are dragg’d into the picture – one hardly expects Bukowski letting them know of his decision to do so – placed on pedestals beside his muse. Erica Jong ‘s 1973 novel Fear of Flying blew female sexuality wide open, while Francine du Plessix Gray was a Pulitzer-winning grand dame of the New Yorker magazine. To Bukowski, all three are simply sexual objects who just happen to write, & the most important happenstance here is actually his second novel – Factotum. This was published in 1975, giving us a terminus ad quem for the composition of artists:.

Personally, I find the ending a little abrasive – in the same way Millenials are being offended by some of the patter & subject matter of the Friends sitcom. But the honesty of artists: is what makes this poem transcend the confines of conscious dignity into the realms of cosmic genius. The afterburner proplusion of an already unchallengable classic. In a letter to Nancy Flynn (1975) our poet attempts some kind of explantion as to his psuedo-misogynistic style.

I’m no woman-hater. They’ve give me more highs and magics than anything else. but I’m also a writer, sometimes. and there are variances in all things

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To conclude this essay, I would just like to show how Nancy Flynn could well be the muse of the poem. The drawing above clearly hints at a sexual union, while in a letter dated April 7th 1975, Bukowski asks Nancy, ‘what’s this here shit about going to Turkey? It rains there too.’ This of course connects with the poem’s opening scene of a bored houswife writing about the rain. In another letter, dated April 21st, Bukowski mentions slipping ‘a couple of poems past the APR’ – the American Poetry Review. The informal substance of this comment suggests Nancy is familiar with the poetic establishment. This fits easily into his muse’s connection to the poetic establishment and her links to the The Chaparral Society.

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Finally, in the letter of the 21st our poet also tells Nancy; ‘finished the 2nd. novel, FACTOTUM, at last. It should be out in Sept,’ which is a clear match to the poems, ‘I‘d better inform her that my second novel will be out in September.‘ Nancy Poole is a poet, on whose website we may read, ‘I spent twenty years in Ithaca, New York, working and raising a son, before moving to western Oregon in 1998 with my husband and cats.’ She rather does look a lot like the literary photfit painted by Bukowski in his poem, & with that I rest my case.

Sept 29th
2018