Once I started writing poetry because I wanted to put the words together right. This was a few years ago (almost ten, in fact…time flies faster than we think it does, or we move slower than time), but I left off doing it and I shouldn’t have. I showed a few of my poems to someone I trusted, and the response was underwhelming, let’s just say, not what I expected or perhaps wanted, and so I stopped. It’s not her fault — that’s just the way she is, and she couldn’t possibly have guessed what I felt was the right response in that situation. I still love her very dearly, and she supports me in a myriad of other ways.

Rather, the fault was mine in quitting out too soon. I let it lie and went on to other things. I wrote in my journal, I wrote other things in which my personality shone through (albeit weakly, obliquely, like late winter sunlight through dirty windows), but not poetry. Just recently I took it up again. I figured, if something’s worth doing, it’s worth doing badly, and if I want to write poetry, why not just write poetry? What’s the worst that can happen? I’ll produce some bad poetry? Heaven knows there’s been enough of that in the world, and if I add to its store, there will not be an end of it after I’m gone. And if I produce something good? Then it will have been worth it. Even if I don’t produce anything anyone wants to read, I’ll still have learned and grown as a person, as a writer, as a mover and shaper of words. I’ll have grown my powers of expression and gained clarity and insight into myself and the world around me. So why not?

So here and now, I give notice that I won’t quit. I’ll keep at it, labor over it, learn some craft and some art, put some sweat and some elbow grease into it; invest time, thought, heart, and desire, make something that I’m proud to call my own, something that someone might want to read. I will continue to collect words, to focus, to draw together my scattered heedlessly flung thoughts and hone them into slivers and shards of poetic genius; hammer and saw and cut and nail, again and again, until the structure takes shape and solid form; take dead aim and draw the bow and release, again and again — until I start to get it right. Even if it’s for no one else, this is for me, so I can become part of what I want to be — a poet, someone genuinely recognized for the quality of his words. I won’t make the mistake of waiting too long on another’s opinion again. I’ve got to keep moving. I’ve lost so much time already.


Happy birthday, Robert Graves

Today is the birthday of one of my favorite poets, Robert Graves. He was born in London in 1895. His passion was poetry, but he wrote novels to support himself and said: “Prose books are the show dogs I breed and sell to support my cat.” He wrote historical novels such as I, Claudius (1934) and Claudius the God (1934). (I was introduced to these by Doc Ziebell, my superlative high school history teacher.) He also penned a memoir about WWI, Goodbye to All That (1929), in addition to a lot of other good stuff.

One of the most inspiring things I remember reading that Robert Graves ever said — I think it was in Goodbye to All That — was when he was describing his life as a father with young children. He says that he took care of them quite often, but that even with the demands on his time and attention that small children (deservedly) bring, he still found time to write. He would rise before they were awake in the mornings, and write poetry then, before the day’s work began. “If it matters to you, you find time for it,” he said simply — and that has stuck with me ever since. That statement of Graves’ has motivated me to find proper time for my devotional life, for exercise, and for my family. That idea has guided me and made me a better person. I don’t think I would have accomplished nearly as much as I have, were it not for that (and the help of my wife, as chief among others, but that’s another topic for another time.)

“If it matters to you, you find time for it.” His poetry helped me focus on what really matters to me, and it helped me trust myself and my own instincts. He gave me permission to entertain doubts and “what-ifs”, and by doing so their power over me dissolved. I owe him a debt for that. That’s the power of poetry — it lives on long after we do, and who knows who will be affected by it one day. So go on; pick up your pen; add something to the wide river of words that is all poetry. You never who you’ll help or turn around.

(ht:writer’s almanac)

I keep coming back.

I’m a huge Greg Dulli/Afghan Whigs/Twilight Singers fan, but when I dropped the (metaphorical) needle on their fifth full-length album, Dynamite Steps, the other day, I was a bit skeptical on first listen. The first track featured some of Dulli’s most off-key singing EVER (which is saying something — he once compared his voice to a “vocal Cadillac purring, albeit with pitch and tone issues”, which just about sums it up). His sour notes seemed to pull down the soaring sweetness of the rest of the music. It didn’t seem to improve a lot from there — the atmospherics were all in place, Dulli writes and orchestrates atmosphere you can cut with a knife, but you need more than atmosphere to make an album really come alive. The songs almost felt like sketches, or like they needed another idea apiece to finish them off. Some of the juxtapositions of the song elements didn’t seem to fit at first, or felt a little awkward. The only song that really connected on first listen was “Gunshots”, and that didn’t even seem like that great big of a song. I’d heard “On the Corner” live (sort of; I caught the webcast when the Whigs played SXSW) so I liked that and knew it, but the rest seemed, well…lacking. Too bad, I thought, and hit play again. Maybe Dulli’s run dry of ideas.

I should have known better. This is a very deeply constructed album, ladies and gentlemen; don’t let the surface fool you. This record now has its hooks into me and I want to get sucked under. I want it to pull me down and overwhelm me, drown me and swamp me, fill my sinuses and empty my mind, spin me around and drop me and pick me up again. I don’t know how he did it, but he did it. And I love it.

twilight singers on stageYou will get sucked in — by the reflective, brooding, spare piano that leads in “Get Lucky”; by the gnarly countrified groove that spirals out the end of “Blackbird and the Fox”; by the captivating layers and layers of sound that open the album in “Last Night in Town.” You will be beguiled, as I was, by the late-afternoon-golden-sun-flooding-in vibe of “The Beginning of the End”, or the frantic fuzzed-out shred and hammer of “Waves”, as Dulli’s voice soars over the top of the chaos. You’ll be transfixed as Dulli steadily leads his band in plowing through “She Was Stolen”, trying by straight grit, sweat, and fidelity to crest the heights of inspiration and taking you with him without a fight, enchanted. Dulli characterized this record as “70’s AM rock” in interviews, and after spinning it two or three dozen times I think I hear why. It’s not in hackneyed sonic signifiers, nor in trite tropes or clichés borrowed from decades past; it’s the way the music shimmers, resonates, and rolls through your soul…when it’s not tapping into that 2am-dead still-pensive/depressed/brooding vibe that Dulli holds patents on in 15 countries (see “Be Invited” for an outstanding example off this LP.) These are not songs; these are peeks into someone’s head, looking through their eyes, entering strange rooms that somehow you feel you’ve been in before — like getting to know someone you’ve just met, and realizing you knew them far better than you thought at first.

As always, Dulli’s lyrics are poetry inscribed in the gutter with one eye on the stars, but he’s reached a new level of sophistication (and abstraction) here. There’s a narrative somewhere in here, but danged if I can tease it out. Maybe Dulli can’t. That’s okay. Read in (or out)what you want, because it’s wide open; elliptical and veiled enough to be anyone’s truth, and personal enough to be yours. Self-destruction, warning, revenge, the gravity exerted by addiction, redemption, cheap thrills and the gut-punched ache of loyalty to another frail, broken human — all here, in spades, and then some. Once again I’m hooked.

Hit it.

Poetry on the Wing — One Good Paragraph #4

I just finished reading Anne Morrow Lindbergh’s Listen! The Wind. It’s a pretty good book. I get the feeling that it’s been sadly overlooked since it was published in 1939. Sometimes just the passage of time buries books or authors, the sands of the hourglass piling up and obscuring them forever — until they’re unearthed. This book deserves to be read, as many obscure books do. It might make a good book for young people. It centers around one leg of one of her trips with her husband Charles, the world-famous aviator. As you read, it’s apparent that Anne was a poet — the way she hangs her sentences together, the way her words flow, is something to admire. My favorite parts of the book were when she describes hunching over listening to the radio as hard as she can, trying to hear distant stations as they cross the Atlantic, as here:

No answer in the earphones, only those stars clashing in the distance, those moons cart-wheeling through space. For you seem to hear distance and space on the radio. Sounds puncture the silence, like stars the dark, giving you a sense of perspective.

But I was beginning to hear something else beside the cosmic crashes, faint squeaks against the welter of noise, precise scratchings upon the blurred surface of sound. So dim and faint, they were no more than a twig’s tapping on a window-pane during a storm; no more than a crab’s track on sand, partly erased by a wave; or a dead leaf’s tracing on new-fallen snow. They were living, however; they were human, I was sure. They were dot-dash, Morse-code letters, words, messages of a human being.


The End and the Beginning

I get two poems a day in my email, and this was one of today’s poems. It made me stop and smile, stop and think, stop and wish the world were different — all things poetry should do. As a native of Poland, Szymborska should know a thing or two about rebuilding after wars. I like the hope, the resolve, the muted grieving over old grievances still buried (the line about finding rusted-out arguments is one of my favorites in the poem), and she’s exactly right: It’s not photogenic to pick up the pieces, but it is absolutely necessary. May you be strengthened in your resolve to pick up the pieces, whatever they are, wherever you are.

The End and the Beginning

by Wisława  Szymborska

After every war
someone has to clean up.
Things won’t
straighten themselves up, after all.
Someone has to push the rubble
to the side of the road,
so the corpse-filled wagons
can pass.
Someone has to get mired
in scum and ashes,
sofa springs,
splintered glass,
and bloody rags.
Someone has to drag in a girder
to prop up a wall.
Someone has to glaze a window,
rehang a door.
Photogenic it’s not,
and takes years.
All the cameras have left
for another war.
We’ll need the bridges back,
and new railway stations.
Sleeves will go ragged
from rolling them up.
Someone, broom in hand,
still recalls the way it was.
Someone else listens
and nods with unsevered head.
But already there are those nearby
starting to mill about
who will find it dull.
From out of the bushes
sometimes someone still unearths
rusted-out arguments
and carries them to the garbage pile.
Those who knew
what was going on here
must make way for
those who know little.
And less than little.
And finally as little as nothing.
In the grass that has overgrown
causes and effects,
someone must be stretched out
blade of grass in his mouth
gazing at the clouds.