ED GALING: A POET OF THE GREATEST GENERATION by Doug HolderPosted by Rattle
ED GALING: A POET OF THE GREATEST GENERATION (1917 – 2013)
I’ve written more than a few poems for my friend Ed Galing, after getting the many letters he has sent me over the years. Ed’s letters are probably as good as his poems. They are alive and spirited, like the scrappy street urchin that Ed was in his early years. Ed can be needy, infuriating, and hilarious, but most of all loveable. And that’s the way I characterize his poetry. Like Ed, it shoots from the hip, giving it straight with no chaser. I find that, in contrast, a lot of the poetry I read today has a calculated ironic distance, almost as if the poet is afraid to display some honest sentiment or emotion. Ed Galing, at 89, is a poet who knows his allotted time is too short for posturing, for cool detachment, or obtuse and inaccessible verse. After long years of writing and submitting his work, Galing has joined the ranks of the major small press poets that includes: A.D. Winans, Hugh Fox, Lyn Lifshin, Alan Catlin, Lynne Savitt, and others. Like the poets just mentioned Galing’s poetry, stories, and essays have appeared in the most obscure and the most well-known journals across the country. Whenever I pick up a little magazine like the Chiron Review, Rattle, Lummox Journal, Poesy, Brevities, The Small Press Review, Pegasus and hundreds of others, I am not surprised to find Ed Galing’s name there.
I first encountered Ed Galing’s poetry in a defunct magazine founded by the late Ralph Haselmann Jr., Lucid Moon. Ed Galing was described as the “harmonica-playing poet-laureate of Hatboro, PA” (his hometown). I later found out that Galing’s work was liberally spread out over a wide swath of small press magazines, journals, newspapers, and the whole spectrum of publications. What came through in Ed’s poetry was his no-bullshit, call a spade-a-spade style. He reminded me a lot of my wisecracking Jewish uncles from boyhood, always busting chops and spinning stories. He is what they would call a mensch. A Yiddish word, it means someone of consequence, someone to emulate. That’s Ed.
In a number of interviews that I conducted with Ed, I became aware of his hardscrabble life, as it was reflected in his poetry. Ed told me that he started to write poetry as a young person during the Depression era. Galing’s family was on general relief, and they lived in very Spartan conditions on the Lower East Side of New York City and in the gone-to-seed environs of South Philadelphia.
Galing remembered his high school English teacher, Dr. Ginsberg, who was supportive of his work and pushed him to read the classics. Galing told me he took to poetry early on. As to why, he related: “Poetry could say something in a few words that prose could only do in the thousands. Poetry allowed me to pour out my heart and soul …” Later Galing mined his early years as fodder for his large body of work. In his most recent collection, Buying a Suit on Essex Street (Iniquity Press), Galing writes about his boyhood urban retreat—the fires cape on his tenement building over the bustling immigrant-filled streets of the Lower East Side.
Mine was on the
A small iron
Outside the front
Looking down on
Lower East Side:
Down below I
could see pushcarts:
people pushing and
Screams and mutterings:
shouts of despair:
Up here, when I sat
outside the window
in my fire escape
I was six years old:
and already I knew
what it felt like
To be caged in
some wild animal.
Ed remembers vividly the cornucopia of sights and sounds the Lower east Side had to offer: “There were the cries of the merchants and the hundred of people pushing and shoving. There was a flavor to those streets I won’t forget. I think it shaped my life. There were the rooftops, the wash on the lines, the garbage on the streets, and the gang fights.”
Galing also felt the bitter taste of in-your-face antisemitism. He learned from the predominately Christian world that the Jews killed Christ, and that Santa Claus wanted no part of him. All this left an indelible impression on the man.
Galing has written many poems concerning antisemitism, as he experienced it. As an occupation solider in Europe shortly after World War II, he was a witness to the death camps at Dachau. Galing told me: “All of these events shaped my sensibility and my poetry. I found antisemitism everywhere … the Army, the Navy.” Galing saw the horrific ovens of the camps, and was enraged at the denial of the atrocities by many Germans he encountered. Galing, through the Lucid Moon Press, published a small book of his war time experiences, complete with photos. In spite of these experiences he did not become misanthropic. Galing told me, “This affected me as a man. I wanted to use my words to benefit mankind. I wanted to show that love is important to life.”
To this day Ed Galing visits Jack’s Deli in his old stomping grounds of South Phillie and entertains the patrons with his harmonica. Now that his wife is a resident in a nursing home, he visits her daily, and shares his poetry and music with the other residents, as well. Ed makes no concessions to the computer age and still corresponds with fellow poets by hand-written letter. He types his poems out on an old typewriter. Ed and I talk on the phone regularly, and he expresses his frustration with the infirmities of old age, his wife’s declining health, the capriciousness of editors, you name it. Yet, overall, Galing keeps a positive attitude, and still has eagle eye out for the next poem.
Galing has experienced a lot, but like many of his rapidly diminishing peers he is able to separate what is important from what is not. Ed has no time to worry about the latest trend, engage in navel gazing, or morbid introspection. What matters to Galing are the people in his life that he touched and who touched him. Ed reflected: “I have two grandsons, three grandchildren, and I am married to a wonderful woman. What is there to know about Ed Galing? Just a simple man, trying to write poetry, and perhaps trying to hear a good word about my work.”
if my father taught
it was how to exist
was hard to do.
and where every
breath of air
in our lower
east side building
was filled with
the acrid order
of rotten vegetables
that most of us
tenants ate, when
we could afford
to buy the left-
overs, from the
pushcarts on orchard
oh, the rabble, oh
oh, the jostling
and pushing of
so many of us
as we walked along
pavements so crowded
that we had to almost
walk out into the middle
of the street …
my father made life
as endurable as possible,
by wearing the same clothes
all year round, and when they
his needle and thread would mend them,
he ate little, mostly potatoes,
which gave him that round little
belly, and portly gait,
and he busied himself around
the apartment we had,
my mother in the kitchen,
making food on the coal stove,
learning how to squeeze beets
to make borscht,
and me in my six year old wisdom,
learning how to steal an
occasional apple from the
pushcart outside …
all in a day’s work in
And, just like his old man before him, Ed keeps working at his craft, a craft which has been his life.
Editors Note: Ed Galing died December 18, 2013, at his home in Hatboro, PA. He was 96.
Doug Holder was born in Manhattan, N.Y. on July 5, 1955. A small press activist, he founded the Ibbetson Street Press in the winter of 1998 in Somerville, Mass. He has published over 40 books of poetry of local and national poets and over 20 issues of the literary journal Ibbetson Street, which published Galing in every issue. He also created a blog for Galing years ago: (edgaling.blogspot.com)
“The Double Image” by Jessica JacobsPosted by Rattle
THE DOUBLE IMAGE
“I, who was never quite sure/ about being a girl, needed another/ life, another image to remind me.”
—Anne Sexton, “The Double Image”
I was invited to Hannah’s party by one of her friends, a woman I thought I wanted until I saw Hannah. Her summer house was a stunner, all wood and glass, prowing its very own Hudson Valley hill. “Her other place is a condo in L.A.,” the friend said proudly, as though knowing Hannah granted her equity. “Mary’s heading back there next week.”
“I’m shooting a documentary,” Mary added, leading us into the house.
Mary was Hannah’s girlfriend, yes, but that didn’t stop me from looking at the woman leaning against the knife-scarred kitchen island: Hannah was my height, blonde hair only glancingly tamed—the word leonine came embarrassingly to mind. Her skin glowed against the white of her men’s dress shirt, sleeves cuffed to reveal toned forearms and hands so large they seemed to belong to a woman a foot taller. She looked not only like someone I wanted to know, but someone I already knew.
As Van Morrison’s “Moondance” blared from a room off the kitchen, she handed me a beer and half a pot brownie from a neat stack of them on the counter, and walked me into a room flanked with floor to ceiling windows, dominated by an antique postal desk. In its center was a manuscript. I was about to ask what she wrote but, then, there was Mary, squeezing the back of Hannah’s neck as though corralling an errant pup, leaving with the presumption she’d be followed.
On our way out, Hannah behind me, I reached up as though to stretch and did a quick pull-up on the doorframe, my arms strong from a season of climbing. Even then, I knew that move was more fourteen-year-old boy than what I was, a nineteen-year-old woman, a girl really, awkward and more serious than my years. I wanted so badly to impress her.
* * *
Six years earlier, at a summer camp ropes course with a pine tree laddered to the top by small boards, I was introduced to climbing. I made my way up, crying as I death-gripped the brusque bark, crying with every scuffling movement toward the top, until my tears were snuffed by an adolescent epiphany: I’d been terrified and embarrassed the whole way, but I’d made it. The next time I did something that frightened me—and the adrenaline thrumming my body insisted there’d be a next time—I’d keep that fear to myself, find a way to use it like fuel.
Obsessed, I returned home to the flats of central Florida, pored over climbing magazines, and began to swim and lift weights. Two years later, Orlando’s first indoor rock gym opened and I talked my way into a job, cadging climbing road trips from patrons and staff whenever possible. It was the only sport I’d done that pushed my body to failure, where I’d commanded my hand to grip something only to watch it spasm open instead; felt my leg pump wildly of its own accord, Elvising my foot off a ledge. In a life privileged with safety nets—supportive parents, top-shelf education—with climbing, my safety and survival were assured only by what I brought to it. It left me bloody-kneed and bruise-dappled, exhausted as I was exhilarated. But, from it, an image took shape: a self-reliant woman who not only didn’t avoid the things she feared, but sought them out.
That was what I was doing the summer I met Hannah: living in New Paltz after my first year of college, working in a gear shop, trying to stretch myself to fit the outlines of that ideal.
* * *
In the living room, Hannah bent over a small stereo and, from the speakers, another voice joined the fray.
Music pours over the sense, it graveled beneath the din, I mean it remembers better …
“Anne Sexton,” she said, a beat before I could.
I nodded and breathed, “I know,” too softly for her to hear, took a long sip of beer that made my head eddy and purl. Anne Sexton: beloved poet of my angsty childhood, the first to make me feel there might be a place for the kind of life I wanted, one driven by passion and poetry … The night I came I danced a circle and was not afraid … I was handed darts and threw them in quick succession, each striking like magic. “Brava!” Hannah cried from astride Mary’s thighs … So it has come to this … Mary stood, spilling her to the floor … The business of words keeps me awake … the friend’s lips were suddenly on mine, my back to the wall, enveloped in her pressing weight, insistent bass, and the words, Hannah and Sexton chanting together, I am drinking cocoa, that warm brown mama.
I pushed my way outside, breath coming in shallow pulls. The heat had finally broken, the air laced with the summer scent of apples and sour of spilled beer, with strains of music from inside. Drunk and high, what could I do with this world I’d stumbled into, one of assured older women who were everything I wanted—to be and to be with. And Hannah. I’d known I wanted to write as long as I’d known I preferred women. She seemed to have already lived out the life I’d imagined.
“Where are you, kid?”
She appeared in the doorway, clutching an armful of long-sleeved shirts, the others behind her. Garlands of lights came alive in the branches. “There you are.”
I reached for a shirt from the pile, but she handed me the one she’d been wearing earlier. We all sprawled in a circle on the lawn, twinkling trees hemming in the night’s prevailing surrealism.
I took the moment to finally ask what she wrote. “She’s our famous neighborhood screenwriter,” the friend answered. While she named the films, Hannah crooked an arm over her eyes and said, “You haven’t seen them. They’re kind of obscure.”
* * *
My boyfriend in high school was a sweet, gangly boy. This was the dial-up era of the internet, before instant access to online queer communities, before Madonna kissed Britney to sell albums, before straight women gloried in saying they’d be gay for Ellen. The one out guy at my school had his ass kicked often enough he transferred. There were no out lesbians, and I wasn’t willing to wait for intimacy until one made herself known. So came a string of disposable boys. So came the boyfriend, the last and best of them. We spent our days biking and wakeboarding, easy access to water one of the few perks of living in Florida; our nights watching movies and having sex—if and when I felt so inclined. Three months into our relationship, the night he told me he loved me, I told him I was gay.
“But what does that mean for me?” he asked, face buried in his hands. “For us?”
“Well, I mean, I care about you and think you’re attractive.”
I paused, not really knowing how to finish a sentence that lamely inadequate.
“So I guess it means we can stay together until I leave for college.” And can date women, I added silently.
How I had the nerve to say this to the face of a poor boy who had just confessed his love is beyond me, so I’ll blame it on the lingering effects of too much Ayn Rand. But, as I was his first, in love and sex, he accepted this meager offering. Together for my last two years of high school, in contrast to the cynicism I’d bricked up to guard my differences—liking girls, liking sports, reading the OED for kicks—he was so kind, so ready to be surprised by what the world and I might offer him. I had moments of wondering if I were making a mistake, if being with a man might be easier, might, eventually, be something even approaching enough.
Then a TV movie kept me up until the small hours. A woman who did everything expected of her—married a man, had kids, held down a household but no job—suffered a breakdown and “went away” for a while. Upon her return, she fell in love with her children’s nanny, her feelings culminating in a rain-drenched kiss that made my stomach ache and hollow. By the end, she found herself but destroyed her family. Watching her movie-husband weep as he repeated over and over, “But I love you so much,” I cried with him. I saw the hopeful look on my boyfriend’s face each time I moved against him, the resigned, downward-eyed acceptance when I more often moved away, and vowed to myself I would never do that to anyone.
That was Hannah’s first film.
* * *
On the way out, I remembered I was wearing her shirt. I began to unbutton it, but Hannah reached out and stilled my hand. “You have an honest face. I’m sure it will find its way back to me somehow.”
The next morning, I drove to the mountains.
Climbing is, by necessity, a clarifying act. Think about anything other than the task at hand and there is the very real chance you will fall, be injured, possibly die. Yet with each move up the rock, with the burr of sediment and slick of quartz, I was distracted by how her broad palms might fit to my back, how her hair might trail my skin as she kissed her way down my stomach.
That day, self-reliance was a piss poor bet.
* * *
Two weeks later, Mary was gone and Hannah invited me over for dinner. Afterward, in the study, as I reclined in a white wicker divan, she drew her chair against it, brought her knees to her chest and tucked her toes beneath my thigh. I tried not to startle at her touch, tried to seem more experienced, more sophisticated than I was.
She asked about my family, what I wanted to do after school. Traced for me the outline of her life: farmed out to boarding schools at twelve; drove to L.A. at the bequest of a girlfriend (who promptly dumped her the day she arrived); worked in restaurants and slept on couches until a friend suggested she turn a short story into a screenplay. I watched as much as I listened. Her strong jaw and cheekbones as she leaned in an out of the light, eye color alternating between the shadows that haunted the corners of the room and that narrow stretch where ocean meets shore, sunlight refracting through the blue.
Pressing her shins more firmly against my leg, she told me she’d finished a novella the day we’d met. Its protagonist was a girl just out of high school—an idealized version of herself at that age. “That’s why I was so startled when I saw you, like I’d written a character so real she’d come to find me. The whole night, I watched you and, each time you talked, a part of me protested, ‘But I didn’t write that.’”
Then she took my hand and pressed it to her lips, her breath pooling in the hollows of my palm. I brought my other hand to her cheek and that was all it took. In a swift movement, she knelt above me, mouth sealing mine. Nearly twice my age, she knew exactly what she wanted, while I simply knew I’d never desired anyone or anything so badly. With boys, I’d kept myself at a remove, in a place of cool observation. With her lips to my neck, I was completely present, open. If she wanted to think she created me, fine, I could go with that. I traced her back, her face. Her skin, lacking the factory-sealed smoothness of girls my age, was instead weathered and pulled taut by years and experiences I wanted to understand. Eyes closed, I ran my hands along her body with the same concentration I brought to the rockface, awareness in my fingertips, feeling my way toward the next best hold. Could she feel that? I held her as though letting go would be the same thing as falling.
* * *
My real climbing education had begun only months earlier, when I met Carl, a man with big-wall, Yosemite experience. He practiced the old-school method of placing and removing anchors in the rock as he went, climbing with only what he carried. I apprenticed myself, belayed as Carl led, dutifully followed him up each route and retrieved the gear he’d left behind. On our last climbing day of that season, we stood midway up the route High Exposure, far above the treetops. Autumn blazed at our feet. Beginning up the second pitch, Carl fumbled at what local climbers had dubbed “The Move”: with left hand clinging to the underside of a massive stone shelf, feel blindly behind with your right to grip a ledge, then let your feet cut away into space, all your weight suspended for a moment from that single right hand.
After ten minutes, I began teasing him. After ten more, in a moment of teenage bravado, I said, “Come on, Carl. I could lead this one.”
He looked at me, face sheened with flop sweat, and said simply, “Fine.”
Retreating to where I stood, he lifted the gear sling from around his shoulder and hung it over mine. It was heavier than I’d expected. But that old epiphany was an exhortation to finish what my words had begun. I scrambled up the short slab and thrust my hand beneath the shelf, knowing if I paused too long, fear would have a chance to effect its heavy paralysis—the promises we make to ourselves often the easiest ones to break. With my other hand, I groped back and around until I had a lip of rock flush against my palm, a rough edge firm beneath my tensed fingers. Closed eyes. Deep breath. Letting go. Then out into the air, one move closer to the person I wanted to become.
* * *
I spent nearly every night at Hannah’s place, parking my car out of sight to avoid word getting back to Mary. It was an arrangement I didn’t question—I wanted to be with her; she wanted to be with me; we were together. Perhaps I thought that was what it meant to be an adult: to take from life what I wanted, when I wanted it.
She bought a small television and VCR. When rainy days kept me from the mountains, I lay in her arms and watched films like Cassavetes’ A Woman Under the Influence and My Life as a Dog. Her commentary through each was equal parts fangirl, technical observation, and masterclass.
Nights, I’d perch on the stool she’d bought for the kitchen so I could sit with her while she cooked, breathing in the heady scent of slow-roasted garlic and red wine whisked into simmering sauce. Cooking was something I’d previously disparaged as “girl stuff,” a fact she found unacceptable. “Anyone who’s smart and creative can cook,” she said, sliding a pan of pine nuts into the broiler. “There’s power in being able to invite people into your home and create an experience—for them, and for you.”
By the end of July, when daylight hours had begun to recede and breezes now and then pierced the summer heat, I led her along the gravel carriage road, where cliffs towered above the trees. She threw her head back in childlike wonder to take them in, just as I’d done to look at skyscrapers my first time in New York. Watching her made my chest hurt.
I spotted the split pine that marked the turn-off to Easy Overhang. At its base, I helped her into the harness and shoes I’d borrowed from my shop, went over the climbing rudiments I’d demonstrated earlier with a rope slung over a branch in her yard. Then I pulled off my shirt and finished my preparations in shorts and a sports bra. I was proud of the body I’d built that summer—the new definition in my arms and back, the deep brown of my tan. I thought then that I took her climbing because, after all she’d shared with me, I wanted to share something, too. But I see now I also did it to show off, to let her know there were areas in which I was the one who had knowledge and power.
Halfway up, she kissed me nervously, but said she was happy she’d come.
Yet sixty feet up the next pitch, just as I lost sight of her beneath an overhang, I heard a garbled string of words lost to the distance and wind. I called down, leaning out to hear. All I could make out was, “Can’t.”
A climber appeared on a nearby route. “Your mom—” He saw my eyes narrow and started again, “Your friend’s kind of freaking out. I don’t think she’s going to make it up.”
I down-climbed as quickly as I could, an act far more difficult and dangerous than ascending, especially because, in my cocky self-assurance, I’d worn sneakers instead of climbing shoes. I found her wedged against the cliff, as far as possible from the edge.
On the drive home, Hannah said she figured the scare was caused by the vertigo she sometimes experienced. She said this in an attempt to make me feel better, but it just made me apologize more—even though she hadn’t mentioned a word of vertigo before I’d led her, and myself, away from the safety of the ground.
* * *
Mid-August, we walked from room to room, closing the storm windows. Having grown up in Florida, I’d never done this before and marveled at the weight of the extra pane, at the way the shuttered rooms—defined for me by their airiness and light—felt immediately stifled.
The next day, we stood outside in the cool morning air and kissed goodbye, Hannah on her way to L.A., I with a long drive to campus. I watched her in the rearview and remembered a few things I’d forgotten at her house. But I didn’t bother turning back, knowing I’d see her in Boston that October and spend the upcoming millennial New Year’s Eve with her—in New York or L.A., we hadn’t decided.
* * *
I started classes; she broke up with Mary. There were nightly phone calls, an exchange of letters. Then it was October. My fall break. I picked her up at Logan and we spent a night in Boston before heading to Cape Cod. Pulling up to the massive, marbled entrance of the Four Seasons, I tried not to gawk. She guided me through the steps of turning my keys over to the valet, even handed me a buck to tip him. The next day, she settled the bill: one night and room service, $500. I thanked her politely, as I’d been taught to do as a child when a friend’s parents took me to dinner, but sensed she wanted me to make a bigger deal. I’d been raised that it was rude to talk about how much you’d paid for something, but the deeper truth was I had no idea how expensive that was. It was the first time I’d been to a hotel with anyone other than my parents.
From the city, we made a quick pilgrimage to Anne Sexton’s house. We sat idling on her street, staring at the garage in which Sexton killed herself. “That crazy old kook drove these roads,” Hannah said, more to herself than to me. A strange diversion to begin a romantic getaway, but one that felt writerly and important. As with most things she suggested, I went with it.
Driving the meandering arc of Highway 6, she told me about college summers spent in Provincetown shucking oysters, working on a whale watching ship where the announcer had a pronounced lisp (“Look starboard and you can see what was once called a wight whale!” “Why did they call it that when it’s black?” “Because it’s the wight whale to kill!”), and dating like a fiend.
We parked and walked Provincetown’s main drag, which was thronged with middle-aged women in loose jeans and cableknit sweaters, with men whose ensembles ranged from burly lumberjack to spangled Speedo. A hot girl seemed to be on every corner. It was the gayest place I’d ever been. Weaving our way through, she continued telling stories. Half-listening, mesmerized by the crowds, it occurred to me that if we stayed together, I’d never have the types of summers she described.
This thinking only deepened during our week there. Removed from the protective bubble of her house, precocious as I might have been, I was still nineteen. Countless cultural references flew swiftly over my head. I was moody. She was tentative. I sensed I was entering a time in which I would be free to make bad, fun, wonderful choices; in which I would be too naïve to do anything other than expect the world to give me what I wanted—and so sometimes it would. But no matter how troubled I was by how staying with her might change and restrict me, the thought of losing her was still far worse.
Listening to a band our last night there, one of Hannah’s friends mentioned she liked the drummer’s shirt. Hannah, being Hannah, walked onstage in between sets and asked the woman for the shirt off her back, waving a twenty. The woman agreed. Show over, the drummer ignored the friend who’d been flirting with her all night and walked to where Hannah sat on a bar stool. She peeled off her shirt, revealing a filmy tank top beneath. She stood so close she was nearly between Hannah’s legs, and asked how long she’d be in town, if she wanted to get a drink sometime. All this despite the fact I was sitting there holding Hannah’s hand. It was as though I were too young to even be seen, let alone accounted for.
Back in our room, I fumed over the way I’d been treated, about how things couldn’t go on that way, until she pulled me into bed and surprised me by agreeing. Stunned, I lay beside her while she ended us, saying things like, “You’re nineteen. You need to be with someone your own age, and I should probably be with someone closer to mine. You’ll miss so many things if you’re with me.”
I curled into a ball, sobbing and not letting her touch me, though her touch was all I wanted. Despite my own doubts, I met that moment with complete disbelief. It had somehow never truly occurred to me that the future I had imagined for us might not play out.
“But I love you so much,” I said, ashamed to hear the movie-husband’s words leave my mouth. Yet I couldn’t help but add, “And you said you loved me, too.”
She took a long breath, her hand hovering above my shoulder before saying the words that marked the end of both my long-held romanticism and dreamy adolescence, “I know. That’s true. But sometimes that’s not enough.”
I drove her back to Logan the next day, dropping her off a full four hours before her flight. She kissed me and I tried to be stoic, forcing myself into the car, pulling away without looking back. A mile down the road, I caved: took the next off-ramp and sped back to the airport. Sprinting to the information desk, I asked after the flight to L.A. My doubts were gone. I was going to find her, along with the words I would say to change her mind.
In those pre-9/11 days, an unticketed passenger could go right to the gate. Suspecting she’d found an earlier flight, I ran for it, getting there just as the final passenger was boarding. I stood, hands curled into useless fists as the jetbridge door closed. I knew Hannah was on that plane, unquestionably, but I still went and looked in every wing of the terminal. I was right, though. She was on it. I never saw her again.
It’s the kind of thing you can’t put in a story because no one would believe it.
* * *
What I did not know as I drove back to school, weeping as though a family member had just died, was that upon graduating I’d write a letter that began, “I’m not even sure if you’ll remember me at this point …” and she’d write back a letter rife with questions and exclamation points and then never write again. I did not know that, for years, having learned just her outline, she would be for me Proust’s transparent envelope to the nth degree, a vessel into which I could imagine whatever was lacking in my partner of the moment. Or that I’d one day look out at a classroom of eighteen- and nineteen-year-olds, unable to see them as anything more than smart kids just past childhood, that I’d struggle not to question her too much on that score, attributing what happened between us to a beautiful fluke, a midsummer’s night kind of a thing.
I know now, through friends, that she’s married, that her wife is beautiful. But, still, I wonder if Hannah ever thinks of me.
I do, of her. Not as a long lost love—not anymore, but because during that summer she helped me find a way into my life, to not just imagine and plan, but to act. Images from that time stay with me, indelible. Like the night the summer’s final full moon rose above the cliffs and I returned to High Exposure. Full-moon climbing was a local tradition and, in full observation of that tradition, I climbed wearing nothing but shoes, a harness, and a headlamp. For the first fifty feet, my visibility was limited to the headlamp’s thin beam of light, making the surrounding trees and sky seem vast in comparison. The rope trailed down to a ground I could soon no longer see. Topping the treeline, the moon finally found me and I snapped off the light. The rock glowed gray-green, flashing with traces of quartz. Each hold was still warm from the day, redolent with the rich smells of earth and pine. I could hear only my breathing and the faint music from a hillside home. It seemed just minutes before I reached the first ledge.
Pausing to re-secure my harness, its heavy waistband dug into my bare hips, my thighs, making me aware of all that was left uncovered. But unlike my first time on that route, as I climbed toward The Move, I felt confident and strong. I reached back and caught the wide lip of rock, released my left hand, and swung into darkness. Bringing my left hand up to partner my right, I hung there for a moment and looked around. The moon was so big it looked like it could swallow the sky. I heard Sexton’s voice, that moon too bright forking through the bars to stick me with a singing in the head, and felt the air sheathe my skin. I thought of her then, of how being with Hannah allowed me to glimpse a future in which words mattered, in which a life with a woman was possible.
Then I pulled in my feet and began to climb, wishing every moment could be half as real as that one.
Jessica Jacobs teaches literature and writing at Hendrix College and University of Arkansas at Little Rock. She received her MFA in Poetry from Purdue University, where she served as the Editor-in-Chief of Sycamore Review. Her poems and essays have most recently appeared in Beloit Poetry Journal, CALYX, Rattle, and The Los Angeles Review. (web)
“Beyond Geography: Why I’m a Southern Poet” by William WrightPosted by Rattle
BEYOND GEOGRAPHY: WHY I’M A SOUTHERN POET
Not to be glib, but I have to at least acknowledge the obvious: I’m a Southern poet because I was born in the South—specifically, in Edgefield County, South Carolina, where I spent most of my childhood, with a few stints in Iredell County, North Carolina, and frequent visits to Augusta, Georgia. And now, as an editor of a series of anthologies of Southern poetry, I’ve quickly learned that there is no definable element that makes a Southern poet Southern, other than the geography he or she claims—and even then we get into issues, for a lot of these poets wish to disclaim and escape their territory. In fact, I know a few poets whose careers depend on this “escape from the South” theme. I understand and can respect that need to slough off the region as though it were an old snake skin, to move on, renewed, to bigger pastures.
A bit strange, then, that I welcome both the labels “Southern” and “nature” poet, labels that are often applied to my work, as my poems are preoccupied with landscape, gothic imagery, wilderness, time, family ancestry, death, and other motifs often associated with Southern writing.
However, these elements are not what made me a Southern poet. Beyond the freak chance that I was born in the South, and beyond the fact that I’ll most likely live the rest of my life somewhere in or near the South, what made me a Southern poet are elements irrelevant to geography. Essentially, I am a Southern poet for four reasons (there are other reasons, too, but these are the main ones):
1) My parents got a divorce in 1998, when I was nineteen.
2) I lucked up and found a couple of like-minded friends.
3) I stole a copy of a certain book from a creative arts institution.
4) I had an honest-to-goodness epiphany/existential moment.
I wrote a lot as a young teenager—mostly fiction, and mostly short fables. And when familial dysfunction got really bad, I wrote horror stories, my language arts equivalent to rebellion, a rebellion that climaxed with a novella about the end of the world when my mom and dad finally called it quits after twenty years of marriage. As a child—since about five or six—I fancied myself the mediator of my parents’ arguments (to be clear, they never imposed this position on me), and, over time, I came to consider myself partly responsible for the strength of their relationship. When they finally parted, I did not handle it well emotionally, because my family—my mother, father, sister, and I—were, at our best moments, a warm, loving, and convivial family. And when my mom moved out, I felt like part of me had turned ghost, that I had somehow failed them.
Long before their divorce in 1998, I encountered a couple of other guys—namely Brandon Wicks and Paul Chesser—now both fiction writers, who became very close friends very quickly, during eighth grade. Through middle school and high school, our idea of a good time was walking rural roads at night, coming up with fictional “what-if” scenarios (usually apocalyptic), and sharing—in embellished, fantasist detail—the dreams we had had the night before. We did not want to party or hang out with other kids our age—at least not early on. We were escapists, and in the little stories we wrote—essentially for one another—we created a sort of immature habit out of escapism. We were often very serious, but we joked a lot too. However, our jokes were tortuous, baroque, completely absurd. Paul and Brandon lived in suburban sections of Aiken, South Carolina, while I lived near a peach orchard in Johnston, and my dad had a small pond set up on a berm of mica-flecked grass in his backyard, so my house quickly became the most mythic ground, the landscape catalyst to sometimes all-night conversations about writing, dreams, aspirations, fears. We’d trudge those orchards and that countryside together—a slight sense of danger always freighting us—whisper conspiratorially about matters far larger than we had a right to even entertain. We knew nothing, but we yearned to know something, something that school and parents, and even our own night walks, simply couldn’t impart. We genuinely yearned for something unutterable.
Later on in high school, I wrote a story called “Mikomo’s Crane,” a fable set in modern-day Japan, that won me a spot in the South Carolina Governor’s School for the Arts, an esteemed six-week arts summer program at Furman University for high school students. One prerequisite was that all students accepted into the creative writing section of the school had to participate in both genres: Fiction writers had to study poetry and vice versa. One of the books furnished to us was The Made Thing: An Anthology of Contemporary Southern Poetry, edited by Leon Stokesbury and published by the University of Arkansas Press. Long part of this story, short: I turned immediately to poetry after coming into possession of this book. After reading poems by Robert Penn Warren, Charles Wright, Jack Butler, Betty Adcock, and especially James Dickey, I felt as though the poems were written to me—that they were a kind of literary summons, an invitation, a challenge, even. Though we were to return the books at the end of the session, I took mine home with me with no intention of returning it, and—unusual for me—with no guilt. The book still sits on my shelf, now signed by approximately half its contributors, the spine broken, the pages dog-eared, and some sections referenced so many times that they’ve unlatched from the casing of the book and precariously sit loose in the volume.
Finally, with this book in tow, in the winter of 1999, my parents now split up for good, I decided to trek out alone into the orchard. It was a bitterly cold January night. The trees were like little scrawls of ink branching out into the air, and the sky was so clear that the long veil of the Milky Way was clearly visible, the starlight casting the ground in a blue snow-like glow. Every few seconds I saw a shooting star, and even the distant radio tower to the west and the silent jets high up, their red lights pulsing, intensified the beauty. I was so cold that my hands were numb even in my pockets, and, when I reached mid-field, I looked back through the woods toward my house. I could see the distant window lights flickering, and they looked exactly like dying embers in a hearth. I stared at them for a long time. Out of the north I heard the grinding shunt and howl of a train clacking toward some northern county, and I imagined it moving through small towns I knew, and eventually on into ones I didn’t. This experience—as uneventful as it might seem—truly made me love the world. It made me love the world with a sort of joyful sadness, mixed with the urgency mortality freights us with; it made me know I had to do something about the feeling—to record it, to try to recreate it or re-experience it as much as possible. And so I became a poet for life, a Southern poet.
It was only months after this experience that I discovered James Dickey’s poem “The Strength of Fields,” wherein his narrator describes a man walking alone at night and something akin to my own epiphany—“Tell me, train-sound,/ With all your long-lost grief,/ what I can give./ Dear Lord of all the fields/ what am I going to do?” Later in the poem, Dickey answers for me, for a great many of us: “What difference is there?/ We can all be saved/ By a secret blooming.” The poem seemed, if anything, a permission to search, to at least try. It had nothing to do with heritage, with South as a banner to wear—it was just the template, it was simply the landscape that supplied the tools to ignite the imagination.
The Deep Pulse of Idiom: Noodles, Blue Teeth, Flesh-Eaters, Gustave Flaubert, and Kurosawa’s Dream by Art BeckPosted by Rattle
THE IMPERTINENT DUET:
TRANSLATING POETRY WITH ART BECK
#4: THE DEEP PULSE OF IDIOM: NOODLES, BLUE TEETH, FLESH-EATERS, GUSTAVE FLAUBERT, AND KUROSAWA’S DREAM
I. Macaroni con Corazone
Not too long ago, I came across a selection of Sephardic proverbs gathered by Michael Castroi, a skilled poet and translator. He’d collected these sayings in Ladino (the Judeo- Spanish of the Sephardic Jews) mostly from family sources with the aid of a cousin and the memories of older relatives. Most of the proverbs were clear, while still managing to retain a unique sense of place and culture:
He who runs, falls.
Do, but don’t brag.
Grain by grain, the chicken fills its intestines.
Moses may be dead, but God endures …
But there was one fascinating old saying that didn’t seem at all clear to me: Cominos macarones, alambicos corazones. We ate macaroni and licked our hearts.
The image seemed so jolly, a plate of buttery pasta and something intimate, maybe even erotic? A meal reminiscent of the Tom Jones movie scene? I had no idea, but the proverb sang to me. Finally, I asked the editor of the journal in which they appeared if he could put me in touch with Michael Castro.
Michael’s reply was revelatory. He said his sense of the saying’s meaning was “somewhat conjectural,” but that it “tended to be applied in conversations about surviving periods of poverty. Licked our hearts in this context would mean something like ‘consoled ourselves and each other,’ ‘got by on love,’ etc.”
We ended up agreeing that an American equivalent might be something like: We made do with beans and dreams. But while “beans and dreams” might be an equivalent idiom, it draws its energy from another culture and loses the unique images of the Ladino. It transcribes a delicate minor key riff for the guitar, to a hardscrabble banjo.
On the other hand, a Sephardic Ladino speaker wouldn’t be aware of anything exotic or out of the commonplace in the expression. And, from a translation standpoint, if you retain the exotic aspects, aren’t you just adding embellishments that aren’t really there in the original? Ladino, like Yiddish, is a fading language, spoken mainly among the dwindling old. Should an English translation of an old Ladino saying be automatically archaic and foreign? Or is equivalence what a translator should aim for? The dichotomy between the approaches is a core question in translation theory. And there’s probably no single right answer.
Consider the following: Das ist mir Wurscht is a commonplace Austrian colloquial phrase, more or less equivalent to “I don’t give a hoot.” When an Austrian friend saw it translated literally in a New Yorker article as “It’s all sausage to me,” she was incensed at the implication that Austrians spoke in quaint, cute imagery. To the American journalist who wrote the article, this was the point of quoting the literal phrase. But to my friend, a direct translation seemed somehow to infer Austrians were bumpkins. Still, how could any American reporter pass over such colorful language from the politician being interviewed?
II. Yankee Doodle’s Macaroni
Then there’s that other macaroni. The refrain that ends: … stuck a feather in his cap and called it macaroni. It’s a song we all know, a song taught to six-year-old school-kids. But, how many of those kids, or even their teachers, know what the line means? It’s become simply a nonsense rhyme, although one that’s easy to research.
And when you do, you find that “macaroni” was 18th century English slang for a dandy, a Beau Brummell. And so the original meaning, from a British standpoint mocking the colonists, was that Yankee Doodle stuck a feather in his rough cap and decreed it the height of fashion. But the song was too good for the colonists not to take up. And in winning their rebellion, the macaroni feather became a badge of honor—a finger in the face of the Crown.
Now, we’ve lost all that because macaroni/dandy has slipped so far out of our language. Should we change the lyrics when we sing to something like “… stuck a feather in his cap and called it high style”? Well, someone more skilled than me would have to work on the rhymes and a better equivalent. Still, how would you translate the old phrase into, say, French, if you were doing it today? Archaically? Or would “macaroni” become “haute couture”?
Is it an under- or overstatement that in trying to translate an idiom, you’re as often as not going to find yourself between the devil and the deep blue sea? I mean it really is a fine kettle of fish you’re stirring.
III. So what’s an idiom, really?
The MS Word dictionary on my computer gives the primary definition of “idiom” as “a distinctive and often colorful expression whose meaning cannot be understood from the combined meanings of the individual words.” But secondary definitions are: “the way of using a particular language that comes naturally to its native speakers,” or “the style or expression of a specific individual group,” and/or “the characteristic style of an artist or artistic group.”
So “idiomatic” can cover a wide range—from “conversational usage” to something akin to the black holes of language—expressions that began as bright images but have since imploded into a mute energy; indecipherable passwords shared by initiates. The one commonality, I think, is that idiom is language that taps an internal energy apart from the speaker’s intent or control. Or as G.K. Chesterton put it (at the beginning and near the end of a 1901 essay): “The one stream of poetry which is continually flowing is slang …” And later: “All slang is metaphor and all metaphor is poetry.”
Almost every idiom begins with an image—even though that image often becomes so blurred through usage, similar to the image on a worn coin, that the image is no longer essential to the currency. Translating idiom is tough enough in prose, but it’s that still pulsing wellspring of underlying imagery that can really roil the water if you happen to be translating poetry.
IV: King Harald’s Blue Tooth
In our world everything is accelerated, and the blurring process can happen quickly. Most everyone knows—at least in passing—what “Bluetooth” does. It allows wireless connection of various electronic devices.
As a bit of background, the electronic protocol was negotiated by a consortium of major manufacturers to enable any Bluetooth device to “talk to” any other without regard to different individual software or competitive formats.
But why the name Bluetooth? Because the consortium of competitors named it after the tenth-century Danish King Harald Bluetooth, who “united warring factions.” Even knowing this, who thinks of King Harald when they use a Bluetooth device? Not even the most nerdish among us, I’d guess.
In the nature of things, Bluetooth, like VHS and Beta will, sooner probably than later, pass into the graveyard of old technology. But let’s say that before that happens, one of us became inspired to use Bluetooth in a poem. Maybe a love poem entitled, say, “Electricity”:
… our fingers didn’t need to touch,
when we glanced, our eyelashes were already entangled.
Your whisper was Bluetooth tickling my tongue.
Well, I pulled those lines out of my butt, but say they were better and that something came of the poem, that it got good enough to be anthologized, and some fifty or a hundred years from now someone wanted to translate it into German or Chinese. Let’s say five hundred years from now, long after the minutiae of today’s high tech is as obscure as the highly engineered parts of ancient racing chariots. Think what fun a 26th century translator might have with “Bluetooth.”
Think how impossible it would be for someone in another culture and separated by five hundred years to get it right. In the context of accelerating change, the average educated reader knows more about the minutiae of the Classical world than the seventeenth or eighteenth century, mainly because up until that time our ancestors had longer cultural memories and wrote all this stuff down. If change keeps accelerating, how could someone five hundred years from now hope to research a technology that probably will last less than ten years?
So think how many ways there might be in 2610 to get the Bluetooth whisper wrong. Was Bluetooth a drink? Obviously. Some sort of vodka, no doubt. No, a type of oyster, ergo a late twentieth century euphemism for a forbidden sexual practice.
An intuitive poet-translator might simply finally choose to ignore “Bluetooth” and, taking a cue from the title, emend the line to “your whisper was electricity tickling my tongue.”
In fact, saying that, I’m thinking that “Bluetooth” might make a better title for the poem than “Electricity,” and electricity is better than Bluetooth in the line. But then translators could argue about the title. Is “Bluetooth” a woman’s name, perchance? A disease? Some sort of dental tattoo?
But what if, five hundred years from now, a translator did stumble on not only the definition but the etymology of Bluetooth? And what if that translator decided to utilize the image implicit in Bluetooth: King Harald uniting the warring factions.
Then, we’d have something like: “your whisper was a truce tickling my tongue.” On the one hand, maybe a more interesting, more complex poem—and a better poem? But if so, isn’t the translator mining something that wasn’t really there? Adding an embellishment that wouldn’t have occurred to any twentieth century reader.
But why not, if it adds to the 25th century translation? If it produces a real poem that resonates with 25th century readers, what harm’s done to the long since worm-eaten original poet? To the competitors who coined the word, Bluetooth was, above all, a productive detente. A format that avoided expensive, needless product wars. To its users, Bluetooth, with its strange alliterative name, evokes a sort of magic, an electronic ESP. A glowing tooth of sorts. Cool electricity. But these are the kind of resonances that will be hopelessly lost five hundred years from now. If the hypothetical Bluetooth poem is somehow resurrected in that hypothetical future, other—as yet unimagined—resonances will have to replace them.
V. The Way of All Flesh
Bluetooth is an artificial example. An advertising agency’s inspiration. Natural idioms are richer. Especially when it comes to sex, death or disaster.
A troll of the internet will yield several guesses at the origin of the phrase “bought it”—as in, “He bought the farm.” But all seem to agree it originated among wartime pilots. The first time I heard it was from auto racers. With the connotation that this was the way you “retired” from a dangerous occupation. Similar to the way “he graduated” is used to describe someone fired from a corporation. Or the way old women talk about their friends in the nursing home—“she’s in the finishing school,” where she “talks to her parents.”
On a more ancient level, there’s sarcophagus. Literally, in Greek, “flesh eater.” A word taken into Latin that apparently began as an idiom and that we now use in English without much awareness of its ghoulish image. What funeral director would suggest consigning a loved one to a “flesh eater”? This was something I should have known but didn’t know some twenty years ago when I was translating a Luxorius poem about a sarcophagus. I say “should have known” because Luxorius, a grammarian writing around 525 A.D. would have almost certainly been aware of the Greek etymology.
Rilke, in his 1907 poem “Roman Sarcophagi,” certainly seems aware of the etymology when he says “inside slowly self consuming garments/ a slowly loosened something lay—/ till it was swallowed by the unknown mouths/that never speak…” (Edward Snow’s translationii).
And again in the “Sonnet to Orpheus #10,” first part—about now vacant ancient sarcophagai—“I greet those gaping re-opened mouths/ torn away from any doubts/ who know now, what silence means” (my translation).
But Luxorius puts a somewhat different spin on the image-rich word:
De sarcophago ubi turpia sculpta fuerant Turpis tot tumulo defixit crimina Balbus, Post superos spurco Tartara more premens. Pro facinus! Finita nihil modo vita retraxit! Luxuriam ad Manes moecha sepulcra gerunt.
The notorious Balbus, who furiously chiseled
all the filth he could on his own coffin—
as if he could pump and bugger the underworld
into some kind of submission … If he’d had time
to think, would he be ashamed of himself?
His recent death had no effect
on the continuing flow of that raucous life,
that coffin, like one of his erections
carried in solemn funeral procession
to a pale, insatiable tomb.
Before getting into the flesh-eating coffin in this poem, I should mention (especially to those who read Latin) that my translation is fairly loose and expanded. This approach, I think, befits translating a poet whose work for the most part survived in only one early medieval manuscript with no way to check copyist’s mistakes. And with titles believed added by monks as a way of cataloguing artifacts of a no longer relevant pagan world.
Luxorius is fraught with obscurity—a voice lost for a thousand years until the manuscript containing his poems resurfaced in the 1600s. So any attention is better than the attention he’s gotten. The only real harm a translator can do with a poet like Luxorius is to be boring.
So I stretched out and embellished as the spirit took me. One of the things Luxorius didn’t exactly say was “insatiable tomb.” What he said was moecha sepulcra—“adulteress tomb.” (If in fact that’s even what he said, since “moecha” represents a 19th century scholar’s best guess emendation of an otherwise unknown word.)
What’s interesting though is the way the insatiable flesh eating idiom/image found it’s way into my translation—without my even thinking about what may have prompted Luxorius to portray the same kind of Roman sarcophagus that Rilke characterized as a mouth—as a man eating, desperate housewife. In retrospect, maybe it’s a better translation for my not being conscious of the way the underlying goulish idiom pulses through the poem like a half-remembered nightmare.
VI. Akira Kurosowa’s Idiomatic Dream
Flaubert, in an 1853 letter to Louise Colet, writes:
What seems to me the highest and most difficult achievement of art, is not to make us laugh or cry, nor to arouse our lust or rage, but to do what nature does—to set us dreaming … iii
In his 1990 film, Dreams, Akira Kurosowa explores this aesthetic. The film is a sequence of eight dreams presented in what’s been characterized as “magical realist” mode. It’s a highly personal work in that each episode is purported to depict an actual dream of the director, who turned 80 in the year the film was released.
The first episode is entitled “Sunshine Through the Rain” and has at its heart an idiom, “the foxes are getting married” or “the foxes’ wedding.” This is an expression used in Japan and Korea for a sun-shower—rainfall while the sun is shining. And, with some animal variations (monkey, jackal, wolf, rat, bear), it also appears in many Asian, African and European languages. But the image is as hermetic as it is universal. An idiom that seems to exist at a core of language so deep and ancient that no matter how deeply we reach, it no longer makes decipherable sense—an artifact, ur-idiom.
It’s not hard to imagine the expression coming from a time before written language. From a time when, possibly, our ancestors imagined magical animals who were guardians of the sun-shower, the way ancient demigods were said to guard sacred groves and streams.
Or, not so much a name for the sun-shower phenomenon, as an arcane description of the imagined dynamic, an image in itself as mysterious as sun-showers. Or an ejaculation uttered almost like a protective charm in response to a magical occurrence. The “foxes’ wedding” could be any or all of these things.
Kurosawa’s “Sunshine Through the Rain” is an enigmatic journey into that ancient image. His dream-episode is as short, haunting, and ephemeral as a sun-shower. Adjectives that might also apply to lyric poetry, a territory into which Kurosawa’s episode implicitly enters.
The “dream” begins with a boy of around six running into the courtyard of a large but traditional Japanese home on a sunny morning. The time might be today or hundreds of years ago. He’s dressed in a traditional Japanese robe, but because of his age and knowing this is a dream, the robe “feels” more like pajamas.
Then suddenly it’s raining, and the boy stands under a lintel sheltered from the rain falling both in front of where he wants to go and behind him in the open courtyard.
Responding to the sudden shower a woman runs out of the house holding a yellow umbrella, gathering cushions and pulling them inside. Then the woman, presumably his mother, tells the boy. “You’re not going outside today. The sun is shining, but it’s raining. Foxes hold their wedding processions in this weather. And they don’t like anyone to see them. If you do, they’ll be very angry.”
Of course, as in any worthwhile fairy tale, he disobeys. After peering inside to make sure his mother is no longer watching, the boy sets out through the sun-shower into a primeval redwood forest where ferns reach as high as his shoulders. The sky through the tall old trees is blue, but the rain keeps falling. Strangely (or is it just the off quality of the pirated YouTube clip I’m watching), his robe-pajamas seem to stay dry.
The little boy wanders aimlessly, almost as if he’s sniffing his way, looking this direction and that. Until, in a gap between the Tolkienesque trees, he sees a blue glowing mist, a ground hugging cloud that radiates gold sunlight on the forest floor. And from this cloud: at first slow, solemn Japanese music. Then, little by little, the quiet, measured wedding procession of the foxes. They walk in studied steps as if engaged in some deep, bittersweet ritual. Their unhurried feet guided by light syncopated drum taps. Every few steps, their knees slightly bend, half-genuflecting. The male foxes are dressed in blue coats and trousers. The vixens in traditional gowns. They’re all masked, as if they were Noh players, their faces wooden, unreadable.
From time to time, the eerie procession stops, as if startled and the Noh-foxes turn their heads in unison, from side to side, testing the air. The little boy hides behind a large trunked tree. The third time the creatures stop like this, they spot him and he runs.
And then, in the dream, the boy is running up to his grand house, his sandals flopping through puddles drying in the sun, the rain finally stopped. His mother meets him sternly in front of the front gate. “You went and saw something you shouldn’t have. I can’t let you in now. An angry fox came looking for you. He left this …” From her sleeve, she hands him a short scabbard, which the child opens to find a tanto sword, the traditional weapon of ritual suicide.
In Samurai culture, compulsory suicide was a traditional form of capital punishment—the tanto knife presented like a gun with one bullet in the chamber. A chance for an honorable death, otherwise …
So the knife is serious, akin to showing the child the electric chair. The boy, with his curious and rash exploration of the buried image beneath the idiom, has stumbled into a sacrilege as unforgiveable as eating the cattle of the sun, or blinding Poseidon’s one-eyed son. Only this is a shaken six-year-old, not wily Odysseus and his battle wizened cohort.
“You’re supposed to kill yourself.” His mother’s face is stern, but her voice holds out a slim ray of hope. “Go quickly and ask their forgiveness. Give the knife back and tell them how sorry you are.”
But then, turning away: “They don’t usually forgive. You must be ready to die.” She closes one side of the gate, then moves to the other. “Get going. Unless they forgive you, I can’t let you in.” She begins to close the other gate.
But I don’t know where they live,” the shunned and alone little boy desperately begs. Just as she’s closing the gate, his mother tells him, “You’ll find out. On days like this, there are always rainbows. Foxes live under the rainbows.” Then she slams the door to their home in his face.
If we accept this episode—as Kurosawa asks us to—as his own dream, did he dream this as a six-year-old, or as an old man? Because for me, what makes the dream so painfully personal—not just a filmmaker’s fantasy—is the tanto knife and the admonition to suicide.
Kurosowa did, after all, undergo a deep depression at the age of 60, and attempted suicide, slashing himself almost fatally, some 30 times, with a razor. So, is this a dream of childhood foretelling, or of late life healing? And why was it triggered by the hermetic idiom of the foxes’ wedding?
But really, if this is an old man’s healing dream, could it be the miraculous but tentative sun-shower itself, reaching into itself for a metaphor worthy of Kurosawa’s art? And with Kurosawa the artist, the sacred animal metaphor at the heart of the indecipherable idiom gives a quiet voice to scarred personal depths.
As the director-poet’s dream continues, the condemned boy stands forlorn in front of a home that’s suddenly expelled him. He explores an also locked side door, holds the grim knife and broods. Then sets off shuffling with the uncertain steps of a helpless child preparing himself to die.
But then, dreaming on, we see the little boy walking in the sun through a meadow of wildflowers as tall as the ferns in the fox-forest, the horrid knife still held in both hands, but no longer shuffling. His step is quizzical now, wandering, but there’s the slightest trace of jauntiness, of “what the hell” as he walks through the multi-colored meadow toward a blue misty gap in the hills and the edge of a barely discernable rainbow.
In the dream, a six-year-old who’s trespassed on an arcane magical rite walks toward a rainbow razor’s edge that will bring either death or absolution. But stepping back from the dream to the dreaming Kurosawa: does the 80-year-old necromancer of light and shadow also sense he’s moving somewhere? Towards death of course, but maybe beyond, towards the cusp of reincarnation and yet another childhood? As with so much mythical marriage, is the sly sun and rain showered wedding of the foxes just a prelude to birth?
With this unresolved scene, Kurosawa’s dream enigmatically ends on a mood that Flaubert, later in that same letter to his lover and muse Louise, describes better than I can:
Through small apertures, we glimpse abysses whose somber depths turn us faint. And yet, over the whole there hovers an extraordinary tenderness. It is like the brilliance of light, the smile of the sun, and it is calm, calm and strong.iii
Flaubert was talking about the experience of writing and communing with language at a level few ever attain, but it helps to be reminded that language and imagery not only live in us—but that we exist in an imaged language older than any human memory. And that its vagaries and strange twists can be as inscrutable, haunting and fertile as dreams.
i Castro, Michael. Big Bridge: www.bigbridge.org/BB14/MCASTRO.htm ii Rilke, Rainer Maria, tr. by Edward Snow. New Poems, 1907 (North Point Press, 1990). iii Flaubert, Gustave, tr. by Francis Steegmuller. The Letters of Gustave Flaubert 1830-1857 (Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1979).
Art Beck was a regular contributor to Rattle e-issues with a continuing series of essays on translating poetry. He has published several collections of poetry and poetry translations, most recently Luxorius, Opera Omnia or a Duet for Sitar and Trombone, published by Otis College, Seismicity Editions. His poetry and essays have appeared in a wide range of literary journals including Alaska Quarterly, Artful Dodge, OR, Sequoia, Translation Review and in anthologies such as Heyday Books’ California Poetry from the Gold Rush to the Present and Painted Bride Quarterly’s 20 year retrospective.
With all due respect to those preceding me on this poetry discussion thread, I see great efforts have been expended to assist your poem along what the consensus clearly feels should be a more linear track. There’s nothing like audience-provided cliff notes! I’m reminded of the old lady—approached at a busy intersection by a Boy Scout—who beats him senseless with her handbag. Everyone assumes the old dear will welcome a helping hand. In fact she relishes the thrill of reaching the other side unassisted.
The message to poets is, beware the kindness of strangers. Those who would rescue a poem from ‘incomprehensibility’ may actually be advancing death-by-explication. Poetic logic is its own animal existing outside the bounds of relatable (i.e. conversational) understanding. I’m guilty of offering dubious assistance in some of your prior efforts. But I find myself developing a comfort level with your opacity. To your credit many readers end their excoriations by allowing, sheepishly, that there is ‘something there’ (by itself, a tacit acknowledgement of poetic success), even as they suspect you of being willfully obscure or insensitive to their great sacrifice as readers. For me, at least part of the fascination of your poetry lies in its willful inaccessibility. I’m convinced you’ve constructed more here than a good game of hide-and-seek.
But first, a word for the much-maligned Internet poetry workshop as it offers the possibility for these marvelous rolling commentaries complete with ugly mob scenes that can develop in a flash. Short of the occasional letter to the editor, how can the Paris Review compete with this human cluster?
While it’s not in vogue, I level some blame at the audience. Even the most engaging preacher must contend with lazy congregants. For too many, difficulty is a tiresome abomination, a code to be cracked; really, they want their poetry fed to them in bite-sized morsels. Of course they’ll weather the broken flow of the stanza; the better to think themselves Poetry Appreciators (I capitalize this because I feel it is a genus, much like the Lesser Shrew.) There is a certain social value in being a Poetry Appreciator. I believe this is the philistinism Frost was rebuffing when, asked to explain one of his poems, he replied, “Would you have me say it in more or less-adequate words?” This obsequious reader has designs on poetry alright, but for all the wrong reasons (or is it simply just one of the many reasons?). He wants a cogent sound-bite to spice his cocktail chatter with, a haiku-kernel with which to impress his fellow mid-brows. I can hear him muttering, “To hell with art. Chicks dig poetry.” Far be it from me, saddled by my own nefarious agendas, to cast the first stone here.
I’d like to address attention spans—but only briefly. There is too much of the dashed-off vignette in poetry today. Difficulty can’t keep up with the penchant for brevity. I must single out the Internet again as, for all its salutary effects on artistic collaboration and community, it beckons with an immediacy that can be the undoing of careful composition. People want to take full advantage of a forum’s one-poem-a-day quota (a virtual gag order as unnatural to the erstwhile poet as China’s one-child policy is to that country’s fertile peasant class). The technology itself tempts at rushing a poem out there before its time. There is a propitious aspect to poetic composition. In the days of pen and ink, poets would put a poem in a drawer for a few years before returning to it at its appointed time. I’m reminded of the famous Gallo wine slogan “We will sell no wine before its time,” a thirty-second jingle that paradoxically extolled the virtues of unrushed maturation. The natural forbearance of good craft is tempted mightily in the Internet age.
Hurriedness is not a charge I lodge against you as I sense careful composition in your tiny enigmas. The question I would be asking myself if I were you is: “does my poem warrant its difficulty or am I a hopeless obscurantist?” Speaking as a reader, I find myself answering sometimes yes and sometimes no, depending on your poem. No different from any other poet, you approach the dais with a satchel stuffed with successes and failures. Who doesn’t?
Though I may struggle to comprehend it, I have no difficulty with difficult poetry on artistic grounds. In fact, we need more of it if for no other reason than to put our shrinking attention spans through their paces. For one thing, there’s our civic duty to consider. We are approaching an age when rapt attention to anything for a period exceeding sixty seconds will be a crime of the state, perhaps a proviso of Patriot Act III. George Bush’s prisons will soon be stuffed with people guilty of extended reflection. Bush, storekeeper for the New World Order, repeats the operative term with Pavlovian insistency: we must not cut and run. True, he is arguing for patience, but through the language of impulsivity—cut and run—what a fascinating dichotomy in the dark tradition of Orwellian doublespeak.
So we are being systematically curtailed. In this Age of Truncation, poetry should strive for the lonely promontory; stake out the oblique leisurely stroll, the unhurried voice of truth to power before being led away in hand-cuffs. Let the Gestapo goons beat their heads against the wall struggling to put into words the precise nature of the poet’s offense. His crimes should be impossible to explicate on a writ or a summons. To all real poets out there, I say: Your inscrutability is a birthright. Follow your destiny. Take the long way home.
T.S. Eliot, no great lover of the approachable masses, was all over difficult poetry. There is evidence he took great pleasure at the allusion-chasers who scoured The Waste Land searching for the Nile’s true source. But if the cartographer can plot the coordinates, then it’s probably Duluth, not poetry. The Waste Land gives nothing up over bagels and coffee. People rarely fall in love over this behemoth. More often they are rendered speechless. Yet it feels like a poem, filling us with the overwhelming sense we are experiencing something. There is no paragraphed synopsis to render this experience. This is as it should be.
Doomed though it is, debate is irresistible. In T. S. Eliot—An Author for All Seasons: Word of No Speech: Eliot and his Words, Lidia Vianu elicits Eliot’s dim view of understanding as a mainstay of poetic appreciation. “Word of no speech” is a line from Eliot’s Ash-Wednesday, part II:
“The ‘seasoned’ reader,” Eliot begins, “does not bother about understanding when he first reads a poem.” This new image of a reader who enjoys before he has realized what he is reading is in keeping with what was new in the way of writing at the turn of the 20th century. The novelty lies in the poet’s consistently leaving out of the poem something that the reader is used to finding there. A “kind of meaning,” Eliot says, is willfully put aside, and its absence bewilders the reader. Eliot gets rid of that clarity which makes the paraphrase of the poem possible.
In short, a frothing at the mouth with apt rejoinders—i.e. the false-mastery of understanding—belongs to that narrow sphere of English majors, dilettantes and cocktail party show-offs. For the unabashed fancier of art, however, full poetic appreciation is entirely possible in the absence of full understanding. A successful poem—no less a cryptic one—should not be mere launching pad for dollops of explanatory cock-waddle. Like the falling tree in an empty forest, a poem is capable of its own noise, thank you very much. One can go further and suggest that a full understanding—so-called clarity—is the province of prose and not poetry at all. After all, why write a poem in the first place if the desired artistic effect lends itself better to prose? Why not write an essay instead? In his willful exclusion of certain narrative elements critical to a linear understanding, Eliot reserved for himself oodles of fun: There is no decoder ring. But keep looking because I’m busting a gut watching you guys scramble for it.
If I’ve helped you flesh out the trajectory of your own poetic inquiries, while stringing up a few pikers along the way, then this exposition has not been in vain. If you’re a true cynic, you’ll see I may have committed the same fallacy I sought to expose i.e. talking your poem to death. In the meantime, I’ll continue enjoying your poetry to the extremities of my feeble understanding.
Norman Ball is a Virginia-based writer and musician. His essays, articles and poetry have appeared in a variety of venues. “Being Difficult” was reprinted in a collection of essays, The Frantic Force. His song “Good Books” was selected for participation in the Neil Young Justice Through Music Project and he was honored to perform his song “Space Between the Notes” on behalf of ASCAP at the Kennedy Center for the Performng Arts in late 2006. (www.normanball.com)
“Finding Yet Another Way to Say What Can’t Be Said Any Other Way” by Art BeckPosted by Rattle
THE IMPERTINENT DUET: TRANSLATING POETRY WITH ART BECK
#3: FINDING YET ANOTHER WAY TO SAY WHAT CAN’T BE SAID
The American Literary Translators Association is a loosely knit, unique organization where academics and professional linguists interact with an eclectic mix of creative writers and poets. (A number of its members wear all the above hats.) A perennial topic at annual conferences is the question of translating poetic form. What follows is adapted from my notes for a 2003 panel talk on translating form in poetry. “Reading papers” is strictly forbidden at ALTA panels, and hopefully this piece retains some of the conversational dynamic of an ALTA conference.
Let me preface by saying that I plan to talk about some specific Rilke poems—some of which I translated in “free-form” in the late ’70s. And re-translated more formally in the last several years. But before getting specific, I’d like to talk about what I think are some of the general questions inherent in translating form into similar form. Some of these have to do with something as basic as positing a definition of poetry.
I don’t know if my experience is similar to yours, but for years I happily wrote poetry without giving much of a thought to poetics. It wasn’t until I started translating that questions of theory began to get insistent.
Until then, I have to confess I never asked myself what constituted a poem. But when you take on the task of translating someone else’s poem in someone else’s language into a poem in your language—you do have to ask yourself—just what is a poem?
I began translating poetry in the early ’70s—a time when hardly anyone thought of writing in anything but free verse. This made defining a poem harder than, say, in the 19th or early 20th century when end line rhyme schemes dominated. Then a poem either rhymed or—it wasn’t a poem.
Along these lines, a 19th century American translator of Horace, William Peterfield Trent wrote:
When the translator makes up his mind to attempt a close approximation to the Horatian meter, it would seem that he should eschew the use of rhyme as likely to operate against that effect of likeness to the original which he is striving to secure. But, since the use of rhyme in lyric poetry appears … to be essential at present if the English version is to be acceptable as poetry, this close approximation can be desirable in a few special cases, only.
From the 18th through the 19th century, Horace was almost universally cast in strictly rhymed translations. Of course, this kind of thing grates today. Horace wrote in formal meters, but rhyme was only an incidental embellishment in his poetry. Why artificially impose a rhyme scheme that isn’t there? But can’t the same objection be made to ignoring a rhyme scheme in the original?
What Trent said is also good to keep in mind if anyone is inclined to question why the modernists felt the need for liberation from rhyme schemes. But, now we’re liberated and we face the other side of the coin.
There’s a 1948 entry in the Greek Nobelist George Seferis’ (mid 20th century) diary that contrasts formal and informal ages and implicitly points up one of the problems inherent when an “in-formalist” tries to mimic a formalist. To quote Seferis:
In Byzantine art everything is traditional, predetermined by tradition … It is a “god-given” art … it issues from the “Sacred Scarf,” the icons are miraculous because they are god-given; its basis is imitation. And yet, in spite of what people say, it has lived, with intermittent reflowering, for so many centuries. In this art the excellent artist excels by a minute deviation from the traditional … The ultimate evil of the Byzantines is ossification, the ultimate evil for us is dissolution.
In other words, in formal periods the craft may lie in the constraints—but the art is always a jailbreak. The in-formalist trying to imitate the formalist needs to remember that breaking into jail isn’t very exciting.
Of course, informal poetry, as Seferis says, has its own danger—dissolution. The danger of becoming mere “words on paper.” For me, one working definition of a poem—formal or informal—is: an arrangement of words that has reached the point of becoming something that can’t be said in any other way—the point where language talks back to you.
But this is of course hopefully the case with the poem you’re translating. So how do you find another way of saying what can’t be said any other way?
I’m going to offer the opinion that one way you can’t do it is simply by imitation. From the time Robert Lowell used Imitations as a title for his collection of loose translations, I’ve always disliked calling translations “imitations.” And I think Lowell’s translations are the opposite of what I perceive as “imitation.” For me, imitation is akin to a slavish art forgery.
Conversely, I think a successful poetic translation reaches into the original, and draws as much directly from the landscape that’s portrayed as from the original poem’s portrayal. The object of the translation is, ideally, not the “portrait,” but the subject of the portrait: A new poem that attempts to tap the same source the original poem tapped.
That, of course, is what Lowell was doing and, while his caveat not to expect a literal translation was appropriate, I wish he had used a different word. I’d have preferred “performance.”
What I think is essential to a “performance” is—for want of a better word—what I characterize as the “internalization” process. The long, slow taking in of the original until you reach a point where you’re no longer working with the energy of words in the source language, but in your own. So that like a fledging swimmer plucked from a pool and tossed into a river, the poem and its images either sink or swim on its own in English. (Or whatever language you’re writing in.)
The implication with any performance is that the performer won’t be invisible. But that presence may be more or less noticeable. For example, you can’t listen to John Lewis’ adaptations of Bach without being aware that Lewis is a jazz pianist having a dialogue with Bach. What he’s playing isn’t quite jazz, isn’t quite Bach—but there’s a distinct sense that Bach might tap his foot and smile. Glenn Gould is a pure classical pianist, but are his renditions of the Goldberg Variations—music originally written for a plucked keyboard and reborn with all the dynamic nuances of the pianoforte and Gould’s rich ear—any more “pure Bach” than John Lewis’ syncopated renditions?
Which brings us back to breaking in and out of jail. What happens with Gould and Lewis—with any performer worth listening to—is that they’re enraptured—arrested if you will—by the piece they’re performing. They’re already in jail and free to plot their break.
In poetry, the “jailbreak” is the difference between writing into a form or out of a form. Perhaps it’s worth remembering that Rilke whipped out the 55 Sonnets to Orpheus in what he claimed was a two week space in 1922. It’s obvious he wasn’t writing into but out of the form—the way Charlie Parker might roll out chorus after chorus of the blues. I use Parker as an example, rather than someone more traditional, say Jimmy Rushing, because in the Orpheus sequence I think Rilke stood the traditional sonnet on its head.
The sonnet form often takes on an almost geometric progression leading to a “closed conclusion.” The Sonnets to Orpheus, and even some earlier Rilke sonnets such as Archaic Torso, tend instead to take flight and end with harmonic ambiguities and open statements. It’s worth noting, I think, that when Rilke returned to the sonnet form for this late in life sequence, he said he wanted an “open,” “conjugated” sonnet, i.e. something both akin to and yet not a traditional sonnet.
One of the problems in translating these poems formally is that I don’t think we have any precedent for them in the traditional closed iambic logic of the English sonnet. They almost require a new sense of form in English. I’ve always felt that Rilke stands with one foot in the 19th and century with the other firmly planted in 21st. So for me, the main danger in translating these essentially modern—maybe even still emergent—poems is that in chasing form we may risk pushing back into the 19th century rather than to following to where the poem is pulling us.
But conversely, how can you ignore the question of form in a poem like #5 Volume 1 of the Sonnets to Orpheus. My translation is still in an early draft, but far enough along I think to demonstrate a point.
As an aside, one reason I’m tentative about the quality of my translation attempt is that Rilke’s poem has such big historic echoes—Shakespeare’s sonnet #55: “Not marble, nor the gilded monuments of princes shall outlive this powerful rhyme … ”
And Horace’s Ode #30, book 3, which Shakespeare probably drew on for his sonnet #55. The Horace ode opens (in Burton Raffel’s translation): “The monument I’ve made for myself will outlast/ brass, reaches higher than Egyptian/ kings and their pyramids … ”
Rilke, in his sonnet, focuses not on his own mastery, but on the prototypical mythic poet, Orpheus, who serves throughout the sequence as a persona for Rilke, the poet and man. And distinct from its predecessors, Rilke’s sonnet speaks to the vulnerability as well as durability of poetry. It begins:
Errichtet keinen Denkstein. Laßt die Rose
nur jedes Jahr zu seinen Gunsten blühn.
Denn Orpheus ists. Seine Metamorphose
in dem und dem. Wir sollen uns nicht mühn …
Don’t erect memorials of stone. Just let the rose
bloom every spring as his token. Because this
too is Orpheus—another of his metamorphoses
into one thing or another. Why stress ourselves
deciphering all his names? If there’s singing,
now and forever, it’s Orpheus as he comes and goes.
Isn’t it enough that every so often he lingers
a few days with the rose petals in the bowl?
So much of him has to wither so you can know.
That frightens him too, as he fades. But just as his
word goes beyond what’s here, what’s now—
he’s already there: alone where you can’t be.
The bars of the lyre strings don’t cramp his
fingers. Even transgressing he obeys.
A poem, I think, not only about the coexistence of life and death in poetry, but, incidentally, about form and the jailbreak of art.
SOME SAMPLES—FREE VS. “COPY” FORM
Below are samples of my old and more recent translations of two of the Sonnets to Orpheus. The first versions date from a volume I published in the early ’80s and obviously the translations aren’t in sonnet form.
Let me tell you a little of what I was trying to do. At the time Rilke wasn’t the icon in America he’s since become. The only translations I was aware of were Mrs. Norton’s and Mac Intyre’s and a few others dating from the ’30s and ’40s. But this was also the time that David Young’s iconoclastic translations of the Duino Elegies started coming out in Field. They bowled me over. Young recast the Elegies in William Carlos William-like triplets that seemed to energize and focus the rambling poems. This was a poet I didn’t recognize in Norton or Mac Intyre. So I started playing with translating Rilke on my own—not the Elegies but the New Poems and Orpheus sonnets. Above all. I wanted to hang onto that “21st century leg.” Not only, sad to say, did I not have the slightest interest in the sonnet form, I couldn’t have written one if I wanted to. I was a child of my time.
I still like some of those old translations although I wouldn’t do them this way again. I imagine some of you may like them, and others will grit your teeth. But—I think—for reasons other than formal vs. informal. It’s interesting that the editor of the chapbook series these first appeared in was a budding formalist and I got surprisingly warm feedback on my 1983 volume from other dedicated formalists. But for a lot of people, these won’t sound like the Rilke they’ve come to love. It’s the voice not the form—and that voice was intentional on my part.
I’m also including my recent, more “formalist” translations. The new versions were prompted by a challenge from someone I respected, but the re-translation went far beyond a re-casting as “faux sonnets.” In revisiting the Sonnets to Orpheus, I found that in my young enthusiasm I’d often left half the poem on the table. But what didn’t change much, I think, was the voice—for me Rilke’s “voice” seems to live in the harmonic, half elusive images—not especially the rhyme or meter. Rather in a more subtle underlying music that resonates with what might be said as much as with what’s said.
I should note that I use the term faux-sonnet because none of these use full rhyme. Some of it may be a continued lack of skill on my part, but over time I’ve also come to feel that English has come from being the language of a small island to being a planetary language. There’s no longer any one correct way to speak it. It’s too dynamic and fluid. And for me at least, it likes assonance and corresponding words and hints of rhyme. When I find myself using full rhyme, it’s usually in a comic mode.
For readers accustomed to a “different” Rilke voice, I can only offer that as with any performance, the choices are personal and will vary between performers. I think it’s wonderful that America is rich enough to have dozens of versions of the Sonnets to Orpheus—the Germans can only have one. But, of course, they’ve kept the best for themselves.
Art Beck is a San Francisco poet and translator who’s published two translation volumes: Simply to See: Poems of Lurorius (Poltroon Press, Berkeley, 1990) and a selection Rilke (Elysian Press, New York, 1983). His chapbook, Summer with all its Clothes Off, is reviewed by Ellaraine Lockie in Rattle E-Reviews. His article on Rilke, And Yet Another Archaic Torso– Why? can be accessed in the Australian online journal Jacket at: www.jacketmagazine.com
“The Resurrection of Form in Poetry” by David JamesPosted by Rattle
THE RESURRECTION OF FORM IN POETRY
For 30 years, I’ve been a free verse writer. I was free to use any words in any pattern, flaunting the page without a thought of rhyme scheme, unhindered by syllable counting. Formal poetry was defined as that work from the past, by the Romantics, by Shakespeare and Chaucer, by poets before the printing press. Of course, I dabbled with forms here and there, merely as exercises, writing a ghazal, sestina, villanelle, sonnet, pantoum. I wrote in these forms so when some wag confronted me with one of them, I could say, “Oh, sure, I’ve written that.”
As I get older, however, I am being drawn to form and meter. And as I write more rhyming verse, using enjambment and mosaic rhyme patterns to mute the obviousness of sound, I have come to the conclusion that we have fallen down on the job. Contemporary poets have done little, if anything, to further the innovative use of end rhyme in literature.
Looking at the major forms of rhyming poetry, it’s obvious that no new forms have surfaced in over a century. The ghazal, a Persian form with couplets, is over 1000 years old. One of the most complex French forms, the sestina, originated in the 12th century with Arnaut Daniel. The Italian sonnet’s origin, a precursor to the English sonnet, dates back to the mid-1200’s, popularized by Petrarch (1304-1374). The French villanelle, our song-like refrain form, was standardized by the late 1500’s by Jean Passerat. The haiku first appeared in the 16th century. The most recent form, the pantoum, a Malaysian invention also containing repeating lines, became popular in Europe in the 1800’s. In the last 150 years, several generations of poets have turned their backs to formal verse, at least with regard to inventing innovative new forms for others to emulate.
As a lifelong free verse writer, I am intrigued when I venture into rhyming poetry. First, writing formal poetry alters my perceptions of the world. The rhymes, line requirements, and syllable restrictions change what I write and how I write in surprising ways. The restrictions send me into uncharted imaginative waters. My poems approach the material from a different vantage point, and I consistently end up saying what I never would have said if I was writing in free verse. The novelty and imaginative gyrations are both worth the attempts. The late great Richard Hugo voiced his appreciation for formal verse, particularly in overcoming writer’s block: “When you concentrate on the ‘rules of the game’ being played on the page, the real problem, blockage of the imagination, often goes away simply by virtue of being ignored. That’s why I write more formal poems when I go dry.”
Secondly, I have this longing to create my own forms, forms that thrive in today’s language and sensibilities. Personally, I find the age-old forms too restrictive and constraining. The sonnet and villanelle, though honorable, seem outdated for the world of the internet and global warming. Our challenge is to imagine the forms that speak to today’s culture and modern times.
So this is the gauntlet thrown down at the feet of poets: to create the contemporary forms of rhyming poetry that will outlive them. What forms will young poets be cutting their teeth on 150 years from now? What are the new types of formal poems for the 21st century? What legacy of form will this generation leave to the future, if any?
To get the movement started, I’ll provide two new examples of 21st century formal poetry. My goal is to invent forms that 1) have a certain flexibility, 2) do not emphasize the rhyming pattern, and 3) play off the strengths of free verse. The first is called a Karousel. It is a twenty line poem, four stanzas of five lines each. The rhyme pattern is the following: abcda ecdbe fdbcf gbcdg. The three inner lines (bcd) rotate in each stanza until they circle back to their original bcd form from stanza one. Though each stanza is enclosed in a rhyme, there are no metrical restrictions.
AS TIME GOES ON
As each year came and went,
the man noticed the tree
outside, the one in back,
how its bark shed
like fur, how it bent
and swayed in time to the wind.
He remembered how his dog tracked
in his last dirt before being found dead.
The man buried him, like the others, religiously.
With each year, something pinned
itself to the inside of his heart,
which he imagined was not red
anymore, but bruised and mildly
dry, an item to be stacked
on a shelf or a cart.
The years began to rain down,
one suddenly became three.
The man looked up into the black
sky. And then a strange thought in his head
fell, like the whole world, into the swollen ground.
My second example is called the Weave. It is less restrictive than a Karousel and can be written in two line stanzas, five line stanzas, or no separate stanzas at all. Its rhyme scheme follows this pattern: abcad befbg ehiej (and so on). The first and fourth lines rhyme, and the second line rhyme from the first stanza becomes the rhyme for the first and fourth lines in the following stanza. So, the second line from stanza one weaves into stanza two; the second line from stanza two weaves into stanza three. The following poem is an example of this form.
MILLIONS OF MINUTES
in a pool of my own making
like a minnow at the bottom of the ocean.
It’s too dark to see. There’s a pounding
between my ears, peeling the flesh
off my brain, breaking
each good thought
into dust that dissolves in water.
Much of what we do could be called faking
it, going through the motions
so we won’t get caught.
But we learn too late, this one life,
these millions of minutes
can’t be bought
or sold, only used or wasted.
Whether or not these forms last or evolve is not important. Only time and fate will determine that. They are, however, forms that I have used and reused to make dozens of poems, new forms that have allowed me to see the world in a different light.
Even though rhyming poetry has fallen out of favor and practice with contemporary poets, that does not mean formal poetry must die a slow death. It is our right, perhaps our duty, to resurrect rhyme and meter and transform its use to capture the day. With a little imagination and attention, a new formal poetry can speak out in this terrible world.
David James teaches for Oakland Community College. His most recent book is Trembling in Someone’s Palm from March Street Press. His other books include, A Heart Out of This World, published by Carnegie Mellon University Press, and three chapbooks, Do Not Give Dogs What Is Holy, I Dance Back, and I Will Peel This Mask Off. His one-act plays have been produced off-off-Broadway, as well as in Massachusetts and Michigan.