Monday, November 28, 2005

On writing poetry

This past Saturday I realized why people in the greater literary world make a distinction between poetry and prose, why there is a magazine named “Poet & Writer.” I’ve always thought of poetry as just a short form of writing. I never before made that distinction and although I have published lots of prose both fiction and non-fiction I have never published any poetry. That is not strictly speaking true. Kitty picked some random magazines in Poetry Marketplace and I submitted a single poem. Actually I’ve submitted the same poem a few times and it’s been accepted each time. That poem meant a lot to me and subjectively may be my best. I did, of course, have a vested interest in being validated and I was by their acceptance. The funny thing is that I cannot, for the life of me, remember where I submitted that poem. I would have remembered if I had been rejected.

Though summer now long here
the cherry blossom lingers on
and blushes in the innocence of childhood
a mischievous gleam
from an eye of Wisdom
Eternal Youth

I wrote that poem in High School, 1967. It was written for an English teacher I had named Carol Lindsey. Carol was about 23 or 24 when I was 16 or 17. From the perspective of a 17 year old 24 is very old and contrary to what the poem may imply I didn’t have a crush on her. Rather, she was one of the first teacher that ever encouraged my writing and didn’t give me a D simply because the majority of the words in my essays were misspelled. I thought she was wise. This was in the pre-word-processing-spell-checker era as hard as that may be for some people to accept. I gave her a dozen poems in a class assignment and that one was the only one she did not comment on (I still have the paper). She liked some, corrected others, and gave me a B for my effort. I just last week found her address through Warren Allen Smith. I think I’ll send her a Christmas card.

An aside on WASM and who he is: WASM was the head of the New Canaan Connecticut High School English department. He turned me on to Bertrand Russell, which I think I read in total (with the exception of “Principia”) before exiting High School. He also turned me onto the beat poets, giving me a dog eared copy of Kerouac’s “On the road” and William S. Burroughs “Naked Lunch.” I lived exactly one mile from the High School and used to hitch hike to school every morning. WASM always gave me a ride and that’s where we talked literature, between 7:15 and 7:30 A.M. WASM is, of you read his Wikipedia entry, quite a character.

I liked to read rather than do school work which is why I was always an awful student. Carol Lindsey and WASM (and a couple of others) always encouraged me in even in the face of lousy grades. In elementary school the major punishment for any infraction of the rules was to be sent to the library where we were told to read the World Book Encyclopedia. I spent most of 5th grade at the Library and used to put bookmarks in the encyclopedic volumes so I wouldn’t lose my place. No one ever moved or removed my bookmarks.

I never thought much about why I never published my poetry even thought I must have several hundred poems (I counted 96 in one notebook alone) written down. I never had any problems reading my poetry at places like Stone Soup but I just never tried to get any of it published. Getting a few non-fiction books published was, for me a big deal and publishing fiction in a computer magazine as a monthly column was a challenge but it wasn’t poetry.

Since I’ve been hanging out with the bagel bards I’ve been dragging out a poem here and a poem there. One of the plans of the group is to publish an anthology of the bagel bards work next year. Harris Gardner asked me why I have never published a chapbook. I told him that I didn’t think I had enough poems for a chapbook. He looked at me astonished, “You only need fifteen or sixteen poems.” I knew I had that at least that many but I never realized how many poems I had until I started typing them up. I didn’t edit the selections (except to delete some really bad ones) and came up with about 40 poems from that first notebook.

For some reason I’m never affected by events at the bagel bards meetings until I get a chance to mull over what’s been said an hour or two later. Perhaps it’s a delayed synaptic response in me that requires my Precambrian mind to mull things over before presenting thoughts, fully formed to the conscious mind. I must appear very dull and mentally lethargic (or aloof) while this process occurs.

I gave Harris the folder full of freshly typed poems and told him that he was now my poetry editor. I didn’t say that I hoped he would find enough usable poems to fill one chapbook. He announced that he would apply constructive criticism (as opposed to destructive criticism which is what one normally gets in school) to the collection. Someone asked me if the poems in the collection were still being revised. They hadn’t been revised or even looked at in 30 years. “No poem is ever finish, only abandoned,” I think Creeley said that. Harris immediately discovered a poem that needed a synonym. He was right but ….

There is something special about a poem and I realized it for the first time when I faced criticism for that 35+ year old poem. It was my child, however imperfect. A poem takes part of your soul to create. It’s a different muse, a more personal muse. When I write prose it feels like I’m taking dictation from that muse and while I take pleasure in whatever accolades might arise I do not feel a sense of personal responsibility for my writing. That honor goes to that disembodied muse for whom I merely take dictation.

I could write a 100 word poem or a 100 word essay and while the differences are minimal to the outside observer I would classify the work as one or the other by which muse was involved. As I said an essay, like this work, is the product of a muse for whom I take dictation. I marvel at the craftsmanship and enjoy the flow of the words and it generally gives me great pleasure when I do this for the muse. I do have an ego involvement but it’s more like rooting for my favorite athletic team. If someone says the Red Sox stink I take offense. If someone doesn’t like my writing I take offense for the honor of my muse, nothing personal.

I summon another muse: The poetic muse is different, hard to define, but intimately tied to my soul. Just summoning this muse fills me with anger, joy, pain, and angst. It’s the battle between good and evil within me, it’s the anger of repressed desire, of regret, of sorrow. It is the word of god incarnate. The passions that arise in poetry are genuine reflections of the creator, the godhead or whatever you may call it in your own persuasion. In this I am but an inarticulate scribe. Should I poorly convey the words of infinity it is because of my own faults, foibles and imperfections. I alone am responsible for the sound of fingernails on chalkboard where sirens should sing. This is the muse that leads to madness, to despair, to drug and alcohol induced comas while seeking respite from its iron grip upon the soul. Through this muse I have seen the darkness in my own soul and the soul of others it is frightening and consuming. It destroys families, careers and individuals in its manic search for perfection. If the words of the gods as rendered by my own defective talents are to be criticized it exposes for all to see the imperfect nature of my soul itself. This exposure, this display of my souls corruption is more than a simple reminder of my mortality it is, ultimately, painful.

If I ever finish the three novels I’ve started and if they get published I will be a very proud and happy person and will brag to all about my partner, my muse. Should, however, I ever publish a volume of poetry it must be kept quiet and without fanfare lest the muse discover, lay claim and take possession of my soul once again. Does that explain why I’ve never published a chapbook of poems?

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