To a Young Poet I Once Knew

As far as I can remember, “To a Young Poet I Once Knew” is the last poem I ever wrote.

I had pretty much quit writing poetry by this time because I had grown bored with my own voice. It was too much like Eliot, too much like Crane. I felt I had failed to develop my own cadance, my own poetic expression, and I was frustrated.

With this poem, I attempted to change my rhythms, change my approach to metaphor. In some spots, I think I succeeded, but it still reads too much like a “Howard Owens” poem.

I now forget the initial inspiration for the poem, but its not hard to imagine that I had recently read some morose poem and thought it a bit overwrought. The whole goth thing is not very interesting to me. Reading it now, I can’t help but think of Kurt Cobain.

Recommended Books

I’ve updated the recommended books section (scroll down, look right).  I’ve dumped many of the political titles (left over from when this blog was “Global News Watch”) and added many fine literary titles.  I’ll update recommend music when next I have a little free time.

And with Ken Layne moving to Nevada, I thought adding “Blackjack for Blood” was particularly timely.

I’ve also added a menu of links to Poems and Journalism. These links will grow as I continue to dredge out old writing and post it.

Dulce et Decorum Est

After the recent unpleasantness, I felt like retreating into some poetry. For some reason, the following came immediately to mind.

“Dulce et Decorum Est “

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of tired, outstripped Five-Nines that dropped behind.

Gas! GAS! Quick, boys! — An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime . . .
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under I green sea, I saw him drowning.

In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues, —
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.

Wilfred Owen (1893-1918)

I am not Judas

I have posted another of my old poems. It is “I am not Judas …

The exact details of how this poem came to be written escape me. I remember drafting it out in my head during a solitary and blue moment on the Ocean Beach Pier. I remember taking it through a couple of drafts.

The general theme is born out of my fascination with Judas — one of the most misunderstood figures in the Bible. But here I just concentrate on the theme of betrayal, and whether in my own Christian walk — which I have long conceded is rather shaky — I have fallen to Judas’ level.

Thank God, I don’t think I have.

Dreaming of poetry

In the summer of 1984, I had just returned to San Diego from Santa Maria, Calif., and I was writing poetry like mad.

I desperately wanted to be published, and the leading poetry magazine in town at the time was “We Accept Donations,” published by Forrest Curo and Ann Halter Jones.

I showed Forrest some of my poetry, and he was unimpressed (politely so). I was a modernist and he was definitely a post-modernist, and even though I had not yet studied the differences in college yet, I could see we each took very different approaches to poetry.

I preferred my style, but I was willing to experiment.

So, I read a few issues of “We Accept Donations” and got a feel for the kind of poetry Forrest preferred, and then I dashed off “We all need dreams.” The poem, literally, took me less than 15 minutes to write and I never revised a word. It was purely an exercise in imitation and, frankly, it’s never been one of my favorite poems.

But Forrest loved it. He accept it for publication, along with a couple of poems he previously rejected, and he accepted a couple more poems from me in the next issue (which, if it wasn’t the last issue of the little magazine, WAD folded soon after that). And publication resulted in an invitation for me to “headline” a poetry reading at a small La Mesa bookstore, which marked the pinnacle of my poetry career.

BTW: I do accept donations, if you feel so inclined … tip jar to the right.

At Melville’s Tomb

hart craneOften beneath the wave, wide from this ledge
The dice of drowned men’s bones he saw bequeath
An embassy. Their numbers as he watched,
Beat on the dusty shore and were obscured.

And wrecks passed without sound of bells,
The calyx of death’s bounty giving back
A scattered chapter, livid hieroglyph,
The portent wound in corridors of shells.

Then in the circuit calm of one vast coil,
Its lashings charmed and malice reconciled,
Frosted eyes there were that lifted altars;
And silent answers crept across the stars.

Compass, quadrant and sextant contrive
No farther tides . . . High in the azure steeps
Monody shall not wake the mariner.
This fabulous shadow only the sea keeps.

Hart Crane

I first read Hart Crane in a poetry anthology. It was this poem, in fact, that led me to seek out more of his work. At the time, I was fully enthralled with T.S. Eliot, who still ranks among the giants in my personal pantheon of writers, but Crane has long been the standard by which I judge my own poetry (and I fall pathetically short of that standard, I know).

Crane may be one of the most difficult modern poets to comprehend. Each line is so packed with meaning that a lifetime of study rarely reveals the true depth of any Crane poem.

Take just the first four lines of “At Melville’s Tomb” for example — we have thrown together the idea of random chance in life (the dice), fortune telling (again, the dice), death that is both caused by chance and leads to chance, and a diplomatic connection between the living and the dead (the embassy). And even with that brief inventory of meanings, we still do not arrive at an articulate connection between the words and their impact on the reader.

Crane called this the “logic of metaphor:”

. . . [A]s a poet, I may very possibly be more interested in the so-called illogical impingements of the connotations of words on the consciousness (and their combinations and interplay in metaphor on this basis) than I am interested in the preservation of their logically rigid significations at the cost of limiting my subject matter and the perceptions involved in the poem.

“At Melville’s Tomb” is one of the best illustrations of Crane’s point. While the poem is backed with unexpected flights of word play, the language is in no way trivialized and the overall scope of the poem remains cohesive and coherent. Crane takes unusual words, combines them in unusual ways and beats out odd rhythms on his way to hitting you in the gut with a powerful image. In this case, it is an image of death and fate seen through the closed eyes of Herman Melville.

Take a line like “Frosted eyes there were that lifted altars …” The phrase does not necessarily communicate a straightforward thought, but it is a powerful image once you piece together the look of a drowning man’s eyes, staring heavenward as he descends to the depths of a pitiless and icy sea, lifting prayers for his very soul as death becomes inevitable. A lesser poet would have been more direct, and therefore less powerful.

Crane is by no means an easy poet to comprehend, but none of the truly great poets ever are. Life is never easy, so how can a poet truly hope to reflect reality in simple phrases and trite observations? Language is, after all, a poor tool for describing life, so the poet must squeeze every ounce of meaning from the pitifully few words he has to choose from and illuminate our being as best he can. Crane did better than most.

The Complete Poems of Hart Crane.

an unkind poem, by Charles Bokowski

charles bukowskiThe go on writing
pumping out poems —
young boys and college professors
wives who drink wine all afternoon
while their husbands work,
they go on writing
the same names in the same magazines
everybody writing a little worse each year,
getting out a poetry collection
and pumping out more poems
it’s like a contest
it is a contest
but the prize is invisible.

they won’t write short stories or articles
or novels
they just go on
pumping out poems
each sounding more and more like the others
and some of the young boys weary and quit
but the professors never quit
and the wives who drink wine in the afternoon
never ever ever quit
and the new young boys arrive with new magazines
and there is some correspondence with lady or mer.
and some fucking
and everything is exaggerated and dull.

when the poems come back
they retype them
and send them off to the next magazine on the list
and they give readings
all the readings they can
for free most of the time
hoping that somebody will finally know
finally applaud them
finally congratulate and recognize their
they are all so sure of their genius
there is so little self-doubt,
and most of them live in North Beach or New York City,
and their faces are like their poems:
and they know each other and
gather and hate and admire and choose and discard
and keep pumping out more poems
more poems
more poems
the contest of the dullards:
tap tap tap, tap tap, tap tap tap, tap tap …

Love is a Dog from Hell

Alvin and Bukowski

dave alvinIt’s probably no coincidence that I’ve posted a song lyric by Dave Alvin and a poem Charles Bukowski in the same night.

Consider this from Acoustic Guitar:

As a working-class son of semirural Downey, California, he did not consider his old neighborhood to be a heartland of song. “Songwriters came from some other place,” he says. Alvin took inspiration from local writers such as Gerald Locklin and bar fly emeritus Charles Bukowski, who held readings in a Long Beach saloon. “When I read him the first few times it was like, ‘Oh my God! Alvarado and Western Ave.? You can write poetry about that?’”

Last night, as I rocked to the Blasters at the House of Blues, I thought about Bukowski and Los Angeles and this quote. On a song like “Help You Dream,” even though neither Los Angeles nor Buk is mentioned, but knowing of the big influence Bukowski had on Alvin, I could sense the aura pervade the lyric. I can’t imagine the scene of the song taking place anywhere but a bar in L.A. And “Hollywood Bed” must have been written after Alvin read a few hundred Bukowski poems about screwing women in Los Angeles.

So both Alvin and Bukowski have been on my mind much of the day. And they aren’t bad people to have on your mind.

The slow drip of words

Well, I’m finding I can’t just toss of fiction the way I do blog posts.  The writing is much slower, and then I want to take my time with revisions.

The first story I promised a while back is sitting on a shelf at the moment. I’ve decided to make some significant changes, so that will take some time.

But I don’t want to return to that project until I finish story number two.  That story is coming along slowly. I’m making progress, but in fits and starts.

If you would like to be notified of the release of these short stories — I’ll publish them first through this site — you can sign up for my e-mail announcement list.  Please do.