Wednesday, November 24, 2021

Flashback 2000: In the best poetry, there is love, horror — and truth

     Robert Bly died Sunday. My generation remembers him as the author of "Iron John," the book about mythical archetypes that suggest men somehow aren't self-absorbed enough, and need to go out into the woods together and beat drums and howl. Some did that, while the rest of us hooted in ridicule. 
     I was looking for some reference to Bly in the vault, and found this, which sets the stage for the Uptown Poetry Slam, which starts back up this Sunday at 3 p.m. at the Green Mill after its forced COVID hiatus. I plan to be there, and may even be enticed to say a few words.

     My mother writes poetry sometimes. Perhaps all mothers do. Since she is almost certainly reading this, courtesy of the Internet, it would be prudent for me to say that she writes "wonderful poetry." But that would be pandering to my audience, or at least one member of it.
     The fact is—and I must be delicate here—her poetry is not the sort of writing that echoes in one's head forever. I dutifully read the neatly penned pieces that she occasionally tucks in her letters, praise them modestly in our next telephone conversation and forget them.
     Except for one line, a single sentence, written maybe 10 years ago. My mother began a tribute to her own mother this way:
     "She achieved the fame we all seek."
     I love that line, because it is the perfect, pithy encapsulation of who my grandma Sarah was: the star of her world of poker-playing department store clerks, the cynosure of the Jewish Singing Society.
     I never forgot the line because it is true, and truth is the entire point of poetry. To say true things, briefly.
     I don't believe many people understand this. They feel that, rather than being about truth, poetry is just a flowery nothing, an embarrassing waste. Men feel this particularly. Poetry is in the queasy realm of tea shoppes and dance recitals and all the ruffled stuff that a guy just naturally keeps a big distance from because he won't enjoy them. Poetry is not only lousy, it's feminine.
     There's a point in there, somewhere. Most poetry is lousy, just as most books and movies are. But that doesn't mean that it all is, and it doesn't explain why you get all sorts of junk in your e-mail—jokes and urban legends and lists of trivia—but never a poem.
     People just don't think about poetry. The occasional poetry popularizer—such as smarmy Robert Bly with his stupid drumming seminars in the woods—just end up presenting verse as maudlin, syrupy slop for fools.
     It doesn't have to be. Take Robert Frost. The most famous poet of the 20th century and—the way we're going—the 21st century, too. "The Road Not Taken" is the script of a commercial gaining attention recently, for the creepy way pedestrians loom out of a busy downtown street to say a line of the poem, one of Frost's most well-known, the one that ends: 
       Two roads diverged in a wood, and I
        I took the one less traveled by
       And that has made all the difference.
     Of course pairing the poem with a commercial venture turns it into something of a lie, by suggesting that we, too, can be independent spirits, if only we follow everybody else to, the career Web site.
     That particular poem also feeds the common image of Frost's work—assuming people have an image —as being all about yellow woods in Vermont covered in maple syrup and cool stone walls.
     But Frost is not the Currier and Ives print that people think of him as. Just as fans of Norman Rockwell -- during his recent revival -- tried to give him hip legitimacy by pointing to his stark civil rights canvases, so I will sally to Frost's defense, in honor of today's anniversary of his birth in 1874, by pointing out there is much more to him than scenic postcards of Stowe.
     The day Frost was born, his father—a journalist—brandished a pistol at the attending doctor and told him that if anything went wrong, he was a dead man. And death looms over the best of Frost's poetry.
     In my favorite, "The Death of the Hired Man," a weary farm couple sit on a stoop, discussing the old farmhand who has suddenly returned.
     "What good is he?" the farmer asks. "Who else will harbor him; At his age for the little he can do?; What help he is there's no depending on ; Off he goes always when I need him most."
     Casually, the man or the wife—it's hard to tell which—tosses off one of those stark, universal truths that make poetry worth reading:
     "Home is the place where, when you have to go there,
      They have to take you in."
     Frost broke with all the giddy, Emersonian naturalists of the past and presented a world grimmer than people were used to reading about in verse, but no grimmer than the world actually is.
     While I had my anthology out, I tried, once again, to read "Out, Out -- " without choking up and, again, just couldn't do it.
     In the brief poem, Frost recounts the scene of a boy sawing firewood with a buzz saw in the yard. The boy's sister calls him to supper and the buzz saw:
     As if to prove saws knew what supper meant, 
     Leaped out at the boy's hand, or seemed to leap— 
     He must have given the hand. However it was,
      Neither refused the meeting. . . .
     The poem has the matter-of-fact horror of a Stephen King novel and, at 34 lines, tells a tale as well as one of King's bulked-up tomes.
     It ends without a whiff of sentiment, illustrating the gulf between the lucky living, like us, and those like Frost, or the boy, whose death only fleetingly alarms those around him. "And they, since they were not the one dead, turned to their affairs."

We remember Frost's half century of celebrity but, on his birthday, we should also recall both his words and his struggle to express those words. Robert Frost was 39 years old when he published his first book.
                —Originally published in the Sun-Times, March 26, 2000


  1. I'm thankful for your keen sense of poetry & that you share it w/us often enough ("enough" is an idea more folk could use to understand). W/poetry I find you have to know what (if?) you like & where to look for it. It probably won't find you. I'm drawn to poetry set to music but not Bly's take so much. He kind of hammed it up, more or less "reciting w/lyre" & all that is cliche about that. Marianne Faithfull's latest CD of mostly classic British poems set to music by Warren Ellis is quite powerful, if musically overly ambient. Perhaps worth a taste. Thanks again & (I love this one!) Season's Greetings.

    1. Re: enough. A story told by John Bogle, founder of The Vanguard Group.

      "At a party given by a billionaire on Shelter Island, Kurt Vonnegut informs his pal, Joseph Heller, that their host, a hedge fund manager, had made more money in a single day than Heller had earned from his wildly popular novel Catch-22 over its whole history. Heller responds, 'Yes, but I have something he will never have ... enough.'

      Enough. I was stunned by the simple eloquence of that word -- stunned for two reasons: first, because I have been given so much in my own life and, second, because Joseph Heller couldn't have been more accurate.

      For a critical element of our society, including many of the wealthiest and most powerful among us, there seems to be no limit today on what enough entails."

    2. "It is not the man who has too little, but the man who craves more who is poor." Seneca

    3. Very powerful and timely tale, Jakash. (Likely that hedge fund manager had, on another day, lost much more money than that, but had not publicized it.)

  2. Your Mother's line is timeless, your next paragraph is brilliant, and your in Feder's comment of the day. A daily triple. Might want to try a lottery ticket tonight, you're on a roll.

    1. Shout-out to the EGD regular who made the comment on Feder's website: Dennis Fisher. And of course to NS, a finalist for the Dorothy Storck Award from the Chicago Journalists Association.

      Fisher's "comment of the day:" "Steinberg is perhaps the best columnist in America. He simply states truths about the world around us that escape you. 'The problem with the world is that the intelligent people are full of doubts, while the stupid ones are full of confidence.' - Bukowski"

  3. "For poetry makes nothing happen; it survives
    In the valley of its making, where executives
    would never want to tamper." I read Auden for the striking images, and also the music, which much contemporary poetry seems to lack.

    And the wisdom, somewhat contrary to what Archibald Macleish once wrote:
    "A poem should be palpable and mute
    As a globed fruit.
    As old medallions to the thumb.
    A poem should not mean
    But be."


  4. I'm thirteen years older than you, Mr. S--and I was in J-school in the late Sixties. I learned to write, using pale yellow copy paper, on typewriters exactly like the ones in your image. Where is there still a whole roomful of them? And those pencilholders are a very nice touch.

    When I started, the J-school was housed in old post-WWII barracks and quonset huts. Some of our the typewriters could easily have predated the war. And we had to walk uphill...both ways and through wind and attend classes.

    1. I'm glad you asked, I should have mentioned that. The typewriters are at the American Writers Museum on Michigan Avenue.

  5. Also, where did you find that great old Ohio Forge vise, Mr. S?
    I believe they are still being made, right here in Cleveland.

    And didn't you write about vises recently? Couldn't find the story.

  6. This one was in Moonshine Mike Guzek's shop in Ontonagon, Michigan. Yes I did more than three years ago, which is only "recently" to guys like us. But here it is:

    1. Yes. That was the one. Thanks. Not sure if the Ohio Forge image was also here previously. May have been somewhere else...pretty sure I've seen it before.

      Hadn't read that Frost poem in decades, maybe since college. Now I wish I had not looked it up. Couldn't get the images out of my head. Not good when you're trying to fall asleep.

      I got up and did some homework. The poem is based on a true incident that happened to his friend's son, while Frost lived in New Hampshire. They were also his neighbors. I never knew that portable buzz saws existed before World War I. One can learn so much here. Now I'm wondering how were they powered. Many farms had no electricity back then. 'Tis a puzzlement.

  7. Ah yes, poems are ideal for telling the truth, but also well suited for lies...and hyperbole and seduction and braggadocio and whatever else you want or need to say. Some of the most unforgettable poetic bits are from advertising and don't say, "That's not poetry." The question of what is and what is not a poem has been conclusively decided as impossible to decide. But, guys, don't let girls have all the fun. You too can be an Emily Dickinson fan or fall in love with Dr. Seuss, as you read to your kids. It's all one to me.


    1. Addition of a surprising word or notion can make all the difference. "Will you still need me when we're sixty-four" is prose. "Will you still need me, will you still feed me, when we're sixty-four" is poetry.


    2. Thanks for the testimonial for advertising as poetry, John. It makes me feel like the part of my brain that uselessly recalls so many jingles is not wasted after all.

  8. "A poem begins with a lump in the throat." Frost

    "Poetry results from great emotion contemplated in tranquility." Wordsworth

    "Mad Ireland hurt him into poetry." Auden


    1. James Dickey immediately came to mind for me here: he wrote advertising copy for, among others, Coca Cola & Lay's potato chips before breaking out w/the novel "Deliverance." His poetry is better than his fiction, I think.


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