Category: writing

Who wants flowers when you’re dead? Nobody.

readingwriting

J.D. Salinger. What can I say? He has meant more to me than any author, except maybe Jack Kerouac on his good days. I owe my literary “career,” such as it is (not to mention a certain long-winded writing style), to Catcher In the Rye and Buddy Glass. I know I’m not the only crumby author in this world to say it, but still it should be said. The chorus is loud and millions-strong. I owe a definite part of my worldview to the Glass family. My penchant for quote-collecting I owe to Buddy and Seymour. Let’s just say it: I owe my love of books, reading, and writing to Salinger, and I really can’t picture my life without those loves in it. This is what the man means to me.

Like a lot of people I read Salinger first in high school – which is actually pretty funny, a curriculum based on that book – but then I kept reading Salinger. Granted the volume of work isn’t staggeringly large – a whole four books – but its depth, belied by its simplicity, is nearly limitless. Since reading Catcher that first time, I’ve read it (and Franny and Zooey) nearly every winter, missing only a couple years here and there. Actually I’m reading it right now, which is weird. It isn’t that I empathize with Holden or the Glass family – though I do see much of myself in all of them. In fact, I find myself less and less like Holden every year, which is understandable, but I love the book more and more each time (though it’s hard to beat that first time through). With Franny and Zooey, I fall in and out of love with them every other year it seems – one year Franny will seem an insufferable phony, and then one year (as happened this year) her whole mind will just open up to me and I will love her dearly. It’s the fact that I can love or hate them, the fact that their characters – though when compared to, say, Anna Karenina, are barely sketches – they just seem so real. So full of life. It’s hard to imagine walking down the street and bumping into Anna Karenina. It’s easy, though, to run into a Holden, or a Zooey, or a Seymour. In fact, it’s impossible not to. It’s the difference between a Rembrandt and a Monet – yes, the Rembrandt is more realistic – like a photograph, almost but, the Monet, full of color and pure abstract emotion, feels more real.

You could say the element that defines all Salinger characters is the search for Real, for Truth, simultaneous with a distrust of all things Real and Truthful. I think a great many people can identify with that paradoxical quest/curse, and this is why Salinger’s stories will endure.

It will be interesting in the coming days and years to see what happens with the supposed vault of stories and books that he has written but never published. Maybe they’re real, maybe apocryphal, maybe he ordered them burned at his death (“don’t ever tell anybody anything…”). A part of me would like to read those stories, a part of me wants his family and estate to abide by his wishes, should he have chosen to never reveal the works. And if the books don’t exist, if he just ended up an eccentric old hermit in the woods, that would be fine too. The four books we already have are, for me, enough for a lifetime of reading and rereading.

Raymond Carver, “Hamid Ramouz (1818-1906)”

poetrywriting

This morning I began a poem on Hamid Ramouz –
soldier, scholar, desert explorer –
who died by his own hand, gunshot, at eighty-eight.

I had tried to read the dictionary entry on that curious man
to my son – we were after something on Raleigh –
but he was impatient, and rightly so.

It happened months ago, the boy is with his mother now,
but I remembered the name: Ramouz –
and a poem began to take shape.

All morning I sat at the table,
hands moving back and forth over limitless waste,
as I tried to recall that strange life.

Reading Proust from Start to Finish, #2

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I’m still working my way, slowly but surely, through volume one of In Search of Lost Time, Swann’s Way. As expected the book’s plot (I’m assuming there will be something of a plot sometime soon) develops at a glacial pace, however Proust has announced his themes of time, memory, dream, and epiphany clearly and quickly. Without the forward momentum of a plot it is hard to read at anything but a leisurely pace, which is fine by me. The book is also so dense as to be nearly impassible from one micro-plot to the next; it’s as if you were dropped at a river delta and told to walk your way to the source, somewhere high up in the jungle-covered mountains, and you don’t have a map. You are simply told to follow the river to its end. You walk, and walk, following the river, but every so often you come to a fork, and then you must explore each fork, for you don’t know which will bring you to the source. But up each fork is another fork, and so on and so on, until by the time you’ve explored each little creek and made your way back to the main body of the river, you’ve forgotten what the hell you were ever doing in the first place. Most will say, oh, the hell with this and walk back down to the delta and tell the guy who set them off on this journey to go flour his nuts. But you, and by you I mean me, are an intrepid explorer and like Stanley, or Martin Sheen in Apocalypse Now, you become desperate to discover the mysteries that await you at the end of the river, even if it’s Colonel Kurtz’ creepy bald head (probably not what is waiting for me in Proust, but who knows?!). You are also assuming, maybe naively, that there are mysteries waiting for you at all.

Keep reading

First and Last: Stanley Kunitz

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Somehow my first copy of Stanley Kunitz’s Collected Works had gone missing, as books are wont to do sometimes. So I was happy to find a nice fresh copy waiting for me on the Half Price Books poetry shelf. I like Kunitz quite a bit because he seems like a simple man. His poetry is not bogged down in the sort of post-modernisms that many of contemporaries practiced. Not a beatnik, nor a neo-formalist, not an imagist, not a confessional poet – just simply a poet, lyrical and accessible in style. In another post I would like to recount his “Reflections” which begin this book, because they very simply describe everything I wish a poet and poetry to be. I’ll give you the first paragraph:

Years ago I came to the realization that the most poignant of all lyric tensions stems from the awareness that we are living and dying at once. To embrace such knowledge and yet to remain compassionate and whole – that is the consummation of the endeavor of art.

So, with that, his first and last:

Change

Dissolving in the chemic vat
Of time, man (gristle and fat)
Corrupting on a rock in space
That crumbles, lifts his impermanent face
To watch the stars, his brain locked tight
Against the tall revolving night.
Yet is he neither here nor there
Because the mind moves everywhere;
And he is neither now nor then
Because tomorrow comes again
Forshadowed, and the ragged wing
Of yesterday’s remembering
Cuts sharply the immediate moon;
Nor is he always; late and soon
Becoming, never being, till
Becoming is being still.

Here, Now, and Always, man would be
Inviolate eternally:
This is his spirit’s trinity.

Touch Me

Summer is late, my heart.
Words plucked out of the air
some forty years ago
when I was wild with love
and torn almost in two
scatter like leaves this night
of whistling wind and rain.
It is my heart that’s late,
it is my song that’s flown.
Outdoors all afternoon
under a gunmetal sky
staking my garden down,
I knelled to the crickets trilling
underfoot as if about
to burst from their crusty shells;
and like a child again
marveled to hear so clear
and brave a music pour
from such a small machine.
What makes the engine go?
Desire, desire, desire.
The longing for the dance
stirs in buried life.
One season only,
and it’s done.
So let the battered old willow
thrash against the windowpanes
and the house timbers creak.
Darling, do you remember
the man you married? Touch me,
remind me who I am.

Loud/Quiet

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Sometimes when you’re loud, playing loud music, laughing and chatting…and then you’re quiet for a moment…you hear the wind’s picked up out through the open window…and the rain has started – just barely. And then the wind jumps up, beating against the open pane and tossing the blinds, and the rain comes heavier, and heavier, and the first thunder growls in the sky…suddenly it’s so loud you can’t even hear or understand yourself anymore.

First and Last: Donald Hall

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I thought it would be a fun experiment to post the first and last poems in a particular poet’s “collected works” edition. I guess in my mind posting the first poem – and by first I mean oldest, and by oldest I mean when the poet was at his youngest – and last poem will show some shift in maturity and sensibility, maybe a shift from optimism to crankiness, maybe the opposite, maybe a shift in formality and prosody, or lack thereof – or maybe it’ll show nothing at all, and that will be fine too. Anyway, the first poet I chose is Donald Hall, because 1) I think Donald Hall is great, and 2) it was the book sitting closest to me. Also the title of the book nicely sums up the project here: Old and New Poems. The funny thing is this book hardly finds Donald at the end of his career – this is a midway-point greatest hits collection if anything. Since this book you could argue Hall has only become more popular – only a couple years ago he was made the poet laureate of the nation.

I find the first poem especially serendipitous as we just got finished with an epic baseball game at the park, and I can see a day like this being remembered from old man “to old man” in the future. It’s also funny that the “youngest” poem in the book is about an old man. The second poem is not actually the last poem – I know first post and I’m already breaking the rules – but the last poem is much to long to transcribe here (yep, almost every poem you find here has been typed by hand by me – hardly any of them exist online). The last poem is the morbidly titled “Praise for Death” and is a glorious thing, so do track the book down if you can. I should note that as these last poems were written in 1989 Hall had been diagnosed with colon cancer and so was looking death squarely in the face, which, cruel as it is to say, usually makes for great poetry. So this is the penultimate poem, and still a bit longish itself. You could probably argue that Hall’s most obvious change is from short form to long form poetry. Let’s see what else we find:

Old Home Week

Old man remembers to old man
How bat struck ball upon this plain,
Seventy years ago, before
The batter’s box washed out in rain.

This Poem

1
This poem is why
I lie down at night
to sleep; it is why
I defecate, read,
and eat sandwiches;
it is why I get
up in the morning;
it is why I breathe.

2
You think (and I know
because you told me)
that poems exist
to say things, as you
telephone and I
write letters – as if
this poem practiced
communication.

3
One time this poem
compared itself to
new machinery,
and another time
to a Holstein’s cud.
Eight times five times eight
counts three hundred and
twenty syllables.

4
When you require it,
this poem consoles –
the way a mountain
comforts by staying
as it was despite
earthquakes, Presidents,
divorces, and frosts.
Granite continues.

5
This poem informs
the hurt ear wary
of noises, and sings
to the weeping eye.
When the agony
abates itself, one
may appreciate
arbitrary art.

6
This poem is here.
Could it be someplace
else? Every question
is the wrong question.
The only answer
saunters down the page
in its broken lines
strutting and primping.

7
It styles itself not
for the small mirror
of its own regard –
nor even for yours;
to fix appearance;
to model numbers;
to name charity
“the greatest of these.”

8
All night this poem
knocks at the closed door
of sleep: “Let me in.”
Suppose all poems
contain this poem,
dreaming one knowledge
shaped by the measure
of the body’s word.

* * *

One thing I notice the older poet writing about more and more is, obviously, death. Hall at this point was older, yes, but not of an age to truly face death – however the world had presented him with this cancer, and thus he was forced to accept death prematurely, only to go on living and writing up until the present day. I can’t imagine the effect this has on a person, but the poetry, just two poems, tells us that the person goes from crisp, somewhat weightless, formal (iambic tetrameter) “poetry’s poetry” based on a simple theme to a more casual and rustic exploration of global, universal themes. Poem not as poem but as container of life. I’ll leave you with that, make of it what you will. My well’s run dry on this post so I’ll be back another time.

Recollections

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I’ve been trying this week to conjure up some recollections of my Granddad, who passed away on Saturday. It’s hard, however, to work up so many old memories in such a short time, and my mind seems to keep latching on to just a few things. The moment I try to take one memory and have it lead me to another the bubble of concentration seems to burst and I’m left with just the original feeling. But these few feelings I have right now are so full and so vivid in my mind they seem to paint him so perfectly just on their own. Of course this picture I’ve made of him is from just my perspective – my mom (his daughter), my sister, my dad, my aunts and uncles and cousins, my Grandma most of all, and everyone who loved him will each have their own portrait to conjure up as well, and I look forward to the stories and other recollections we’ll all share when we meet to celebrate his life in a couple days.

The first thing I think of is the pipe smoke, and its smell. All through my younger years, he smoked a pipe every night. He would sit in that old chair in the den, in that house in Bloomington IL, bang out the ashes of last night’s smoke, fill the pipe with tobacco, light it up, and sit back. Just pure tranquility. And the den, the house would fill with that smell, that sweet and biting pipe tobacco smell. I’ve always loved that smell. If you were lucky, I mean really lucky, you got to hold the match and help him light it. Sometimes we would take the whole show outside to the porch and feel the Illinois heat, listen to the crickets and the cicadas and all the other evening critters, and let the scent waft into the neighborhood of E. Grove St.

He ate vanilla ice cream for dessert at every lunch. Not dinner. Lunch.

When he could still drive, back in Illinois, his little green station wagon had this bumper sticker on the back: “Member of the Vast Right-Wing Conspiracy.” Kind of joking…kind of serious. Loved it.

It seemed when we (me, sister, cousins) were really little he always took us two places: the library and the zoo. He volunteered at the library, and I think he liked to show off his grandkids to all of his friends. I don’t know if he took us to the zoo or if we dragged him along, but we went alot. It wasn’t much of a zoo, but it was fun, perfectly sized for one granddad and some anxious kids. And (I think) we’d walk through the nearby park afterwards.

He loved trains, and science, and all things mechanical and electrical. He did work at GE for all those years after all. I’m sure his knowledge of trains and train engines could beat out just about anyone else’s. And it wasn’t just the mechanics – he just loved to watch them roll by. To watch him you’d think nothing was finer in this world than watching a train go by. Even later on…or more recently I should say, when some of his mental faculties were stolen away from him, he still devoured any and all books given to him that had to do with trains, or science. Or mysteries, for that matter. The last time I saw him – haven’t thought of it that way yet – he had just gotten a book of photographs from the Hubble telescope. I was very jealous. And he lit up when I explained the work I do now with solar energy, explained how a PV module works, how we convert the DC to AC…I think he was impressed I knew what I was talking about.

One more thing is, whenever I saw him, he would greet me with a handshake and a “Jackson.” It was the sort of greeting where you could tell he was being funny but also completely serious. I think that says a lot. And no one called me Jackson back then. For a long time I thought it was a silly name – I’ve since embraced it – but the way he said it, it made me feel proud.

Well, that’s just a little bit about Ken Burrell, a few things to remember him by.

Allen Ginsberg, “Fourth Floor, Dawn, Up All Night Writing Letters”

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Pigeons shake their wings on the copper church roof
out my window across the street, a bird perched on the cross
surveys the city’s blue-gray clouds. Larry Rivers
‘ll come at 10 a.m. and take my picture. I’m taking
your picture, pigeons. I’m writing you down, Dawn/
I’m immortalizing your exhaust, Avenue A bus.
O Thought, now you’ll have to think the same thing forever!