Thursday, March 26, 2020

About “Never Thunders”

This poem began as a walk in the field with my high school chum, Dana P. This was my second year of college. I was living in Boyd House (a converted military barracks later torn down). I had recently returned from Princeton, NJ, and the end of a romantic relationship.

Dana had come to visit me, and we were walking out in the fields - somewhat lost in the stars and fog. Off in the distance, I could make out the flashing red lights of broadcast towers. That sparked the first line.

It’s likely Dana and I went back to my dorm room and started writing. We’d often do that, huddling on different sides of the room to write. Dana still thinks the poem is directed at him. It could as easily been directed at the girl I’d dated in Princeton.

Or, it could be directed to “the eternal feminine.”

There’s a sense in which this poem uses several  different methods. One is automatic writing, a technique developed by the Irish poet WB Yeats - it’s pretty much what it sounds like: you start free-associating on paper without worrying about meaning or structure. The poem also uses “paste up”, a sort of literary collage where you paste (in my case) song lyrics and fragments of other poems into your work. This is especially evident in the opening lines, where I quote the British poet William Blake (“mind-forg’d manacles”), a song made famous by The Brothers Four (Greenfields) and Bob Dylan (held mountains in the palm of my hand).

Another high-school friend, Gary, quotes Gregory Corso to the effect that to be considered a poet one need only write one great poem. This may be that poem for me.

It’s definitely a performance piece. I still remember the first time I read it to an audience - at the Library Bar in Norman - the MC said, “You got chops, man.” I’ve played with different musical selections to accompany my reading - the one you heard in the video, from Larry Fast's Synchronicity and Ralph Vaughn Williams’ Fantasia on Greensleeves - I’ve decided the Williams’ piece is too on the nose, and have stuck with Fast's tribal electronic music. I was once accompanied live by David Amran, a Beat pianist.

What makes it work? I think it’s the repetition - watching, waiting - and the occasional rhymes. 

What does it mean? Is it a love poem to Jenny (the girl in Princeton) or something Dana sparked, or praise to the Muse of the Eternal Feminine? Maybe all of the above.

Or maybe it’s the poetic equivalent of a shaggy-dog story, which ends with a little surprise - Greensleeves.

Wednesday, March 18, 2020

Hagiopoeia II

Samuel Clemens did not consider himself the author of "boys' books," or even humorous books.  He saw himself, first and foremost, as a newspaper man.  "Most of my life," he once said, "I've been a journalist.  As such, I was licensed to tell lies that would make Satan blush."

Before he became a professional liar, Sam was a riverboat pilot on the Mississippi.  "I had supposed - and hoped - that I was going to follow the river the rest of my days, and die at the wheel when my mission was ended."

Sam wrote a book about his time as a riverboat pilot, and he called it Life on the Mississippi.  It's a fine book, except for the muddy parts and the forced burlesque.  Here's a bit which Sam left out of the final work:

There was one boat I cubbed which had a captain - Captain Stubbleford - who insisted on testing everyone who worked on his boat, from the cabin boy to his first mate.  It was a brief oral examination of two or three or five questions.  Now, Billy loved the river and knew it like a fish.  Sadly, he lacked the intelligence which the Creator had given to that common animal, or even the wisdom of a fence post.  He also had only one good eye.  But he was a good worker, and we knew he'd be good for our crew.  So we told Captain Stubbleford that Billy was dumb, which is to say mute, and he would have to give his test in signs.

Well, the boys and I were prepared for the worst, even with that precaution.  Billy went to the Captain's quarters.  Five minutes passed, then ten.  After fifteen minutes, Billy stormed out of the room and ran off before we could stop him.  Captain Stubbleford came out after him, shaking his head.

"I am truly humbled.  That young man could be a river boat pilot, if only he could speak!  I held up one finger, to indicate there is one mighty river.  He held up two fingers, to indicate there should always be two on deck to face this river.  I held up three fingers to indicate there were three branches of the river at its mouth.  He then shook his fist at me, to indicate that all rivers are one:  the Mississippi is the Mother of all Rivers, the River that IS all rivers."

Shortly after the Captain left, shaking his head in amazement, Billy came by.  We nabbed him quick.  "Lemme go," he said, "Wait til I git mah hands on that cap'n.  He may be a good cap'n 'n' all, but he sure don't have no manners!  He holds up one finger, sayin as how ah jest got one good eye.  So ah holds up two fingers, sayin as how ah's glad he's still got two good eyes.  Then he holds up three fingers, sayin as how we got us three good eyes 'tween us.  Ah tell ya, ah got steamed!  Ah's bout ta reduce his good eyes by one when he wanders off.  Now, lemme at him!"

Soon enough, Billy forgot all about it.  Captain Stubbleford hired him on as a swab.  The crew all held Billy in high esteem, because the Captain told us how wise Billy was beneath his silence.

Adapted from Zen Flesh, Zen Bones by Paul Reps (Doubleday, New York)