Potcake Poet’s Choice: John Beaton, ‘Shadow-casting’

Cast your line toward the sun
and let your shadow fall behind you.
Face the glare, absorb its stun,
and cast your line toward the sun
for casting shade makes wild things run;
so face the brightness though it blind you—
cast your line toward the sun
and let your darkness fall behind you.

John Beaton writes: “It’s often said that fly-fishing is about more than fish—that it has mystical, or at least meditative, aspects. I feel that way. This little poem illustrates how my fly-fishing thoughts one day wandered from the river-bank to philosophy.

The title echoes a term from the book and subsequent movie, A River Runs Through It. Away from the river Brad Pitt may have become a hellion but, on the water, he’s a magician. Supposedly, by casting repeatedly in the air he can make the trout think a hatch of flies is taking place. It’s a dubious concept, but the term suits the way light and fly-casting in the poem take on metaphorical significance.

The poem has been previously published in Gray’s Sporting Journal. Its form, which comes from medieval French poetry, is the “triolet”. The triolet has only eight lines and some repeat. The first, fourth and seventh lines are almost identical, as are the second and eighth. The rhyme pattern is ABaAabAB, with capital letters denoting repeats. My version has four-beat lines (“tetrameter”) and the beats in the first line are: CAST your LINE toWARD the SUN.”

John Beaton’s metrical poetry has been widely published and has won numerous awards. He recites from memory as a poetry performer. This poem appears in his book “Leaving Camustianavaig” published by Word Galaxy Press. Raised in the Scottish Highlands, John lives in Qualicum Beach on Vancouver Island.

https://www.john-beaton.com/

Photo: ‘Deschutes shadow-casting’ from John Beaton

Potcake Poet’s Choice: Jean L. Kreiling, ‘The Waves’

Sprawled on a pew of sand, you meditate
on miracles of tide and time. Without
a prayer but apparently devout,
and humbled by the water’s shifting weight,
you watch with wonder, even venerate
this higher power rolling in and out:
omnipotence too obvious to doubt,
authority too awful to debate.
Like salty spray, some blue-green grace may cling
and seep unsanctified into your soul,
without a psalm or sermon—for the sea
makes its own joyful noise: the breakers ring
uncounted changes, and no church bells toll
more faithfully or irresistibly.

Previously published in 14 by 14. 

Jean L. Kreiling writes: “Growing up on the beach, and living on another coast in adulthood, I have never lost the sense of awe and humility that the sea inspires.  And of course I have never succeeded in capturing its magic in words, but I hope I’ve made a start in this poem.  Its form, my favorite, imposes the sonnet’s graceful structure onto what might otherwise have been an amorphous rhapsody; in addition, its meter and rhyme might suggest a bit of the ocean’s own rhythms and harmonies.”

Jean L. Kreiling is the author of two collections of poetry: Arts & Letters & Love (2018) and The Truth in Dissonance (2014). Her work appears widely in print and online journals, and has been awarded the Able Muse Write Prize, three New England Poetry Club prizes, the Plymouth Poetry Contest prize, and several other honors.  She is Professor Emeritus of Music at Bridgewater State University, and an Associate Poetry Editor for Able Muse: A Review of Poetry, Prose & Art.   

Her poem ‘The Salisbury Crags’ which first appeared in the Orchards Poetry Journal, is included in the ‘Travels and Travails’ Potcake Chapbook.

Songs as poems: Paul Simon, ‘I Know What I Know’

She looked me over and I guess she thought I was all right–
All right in a sort of a limited way for an off-night–
She said, “Don’t I know you from the cinematographer’s party?”
I said, “Who am I to blow against the wind?”

I know what I know
I’ll sing what I said
We come and we go
That’s a thing that I keep in the back of my head

She said, “There’s something about you that really reminds me of money,”
She is the kind of girl who could say things that weren’t that funny
I said, “What does that mean I really remind you of money?”
She said, “Who am I to blow against the wind?”

I know what I know, etc

She moved so easily all I could think of was sunlight
I said, “Aren’t you the woman who was recently given a Fulbright?”
She said, “Don’t I know you from the cinematographer’s party?”
I said, “Who am I to blow against the wind?”

I know what I know, etc

Paul Simon’s 1986 ‘Graceland‘ album is packed full of these little character sketches and snippets of conversation – and all done with rhythm, part-rhyme, and structured repetition in both verse and chorus. The song gives him the right to a repetitive chorus (as well as memorable tune), but he moves away from a traditional song’s full narrative into fragmented images that give a complete impression – here, an upscale event with two people assessing each other’s social and economic status and relationship possibility, as they talk of Fulbright Scholarships and a previous “cinematographer’s party”. It all sounds very New York.

It is a very extensive picture in a few words, leaving the sort of impression you get from an Alice Munro short story. And it is backed by the chorus that appears to verify that the conversation was real, as well as to state Simon’s recognition of how his mind and creativity work. So the song’s structure allows him to enrich the verses’ pictured conversation by stepping back to be more reflective and philosophical in the chorus.

And as it’s a song, he is carried by melody and instrumentation and can be a little free with metre without it being in any way jarring.

I view songs as a branch of formal verse. But in many ways, as shown here, song can easily flex into areas that are less natural for pure verse.

Photo by Luise Gub

Potcake Poet’s Choice: Max Gutmann, ‘Old Growth’

So rooted
seem couples to a child! Firm-trunked and tall.
Some scrawny: sparsely leaved or badly fruited,
but fixed and solid, works of nature all.
It challenges imagination
that choice was part of the creation.

That they,
these halves, weren’t mingled always, childhood fails
to comprehend. The stories of the way
one’s parents met are magic, fairy tales.
To know the seed becomes the tree
does not dispel the mystery.

Divorce,
unless it strikes our parents, flashes where
it cannot burst our faith. A sudden force
that leaves the broken trunks deformed but there,
disaster-stricken, strangely ill,
but giving partial shelter still.

We feel
this all collapse as childhood’s shed. The trees
we thought so firm and fixed were never real.
To navigate by them can only tease.
Whatever fantasies persist,
unmoving couples don’t exist.

To find
one’s half and gather height and leaves are less
like acts of nature than like hiking blind.
Soil shifts and landmarks vanish. We must guess,
our one-time orchard morphing to
a wood no map can guide us through.

Max Gutmann writes: “It took me a long time to make a poem I liked of this thought/experience. The form supports emphasis where it’s helpful, and that it varies from the iambic pentameter some readers expect mirrors the sense. I rarely feel my verse quotable, but I feel that about ‘To know the seed becomes the tree/does not dispel the mystery’.”

Max Gutmann has worked as, among other things, a stage manager, a journalist, a teacher, an editor, a clerk, a factory worker, a community service officer, the business manager of an improv troupe, and a performer in a Daffy Duck costume. Occasionally, he has even earned money writing plays and poems.

‘Old Growth’ was first published in Able Muse. Some of his ‘Travels with Alice’ limericks appear in the Potcake Chapbook ‘Travels and Travails‘. You can find more of his work at maxgutmann.com

Various updates

I am shifting the focus of this blog to give more coverage to the wide range of formal poets currently writing (especially those who have contributed to the Potcake Chapbooks) and to songwriters who, at their best, are superb poets with tricks up their sleeves not accessible to regular versifiers.

The Potcake Chapbooks continue to be produced on an occasional basis: the tenth in the series, ‘Travels and Travails’, came out recently and the 11th, ‘Lost Love’, has been assembled to be illustrated by Alban Low. Future titles may (or may not) include chapbooks on cities, on teachers, on the seasons, on pets… it all depends on my finding or being sent enough strong and diverse poems on an interesting theme.

I had hoped to have a Christmas-season-themed chapbook out this year, but I am having difficulty finding the diversity I want. Not only diversity of style, but also of content: I would like to acknowledge not just Christmas and Christmas trees and Christmas parties, but also Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, Festivus… everything around the solstice that has given birth to celebrations of the change in the year. (And with some recognition that this looks very different in the southern hemisphere.) Perhaps I will find enough to pull this chapbook together for the end of 2022.

In the meantime I welcome submissions of formal poems on any theme to robinhelweglarsen@gmail.com, but I prefer poems previously published: I don’t have an “accept or reject” procedure, I simply hang onto poems I like until, one of these years, I may have a use for some of them. So, as I don’t want anyone getting antsy about a poem not being available for use elsewhere, the Potcake Chapbooks should not normally be your first place publishing any given poem.

“Temple of British Worthies” by foshie is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Potcake Poet’s Choice: Marcus Bales, ‘Shore’

They grind across the continental shelf,
enormous in their long, well-muscled swells;
I know their sweaty smells of staling spray
and fishy sand; and oh, all by myself
I’ve heard the tide tell what it always tells:
some things wash up and others wash away.

They rise out there a long way from the beach,
and curl and pitch up face down on the sands
from roaming just too far to make it home,
and try to hold with fingers scrabbling, reach
for us, and fail and, failing, trail their hands
under water backwards in the foam.

Finally, though, the greyest weather clears:
small lapping waves replace exploding spume,
and one deep-breathing moment seems sublime;
sweet breezes sway embroidered window sheers
while pleasant sunlight fills the hospice room,
now empty, clean, and ready for the next time.

Marcus Bales writes: ‘The problem with me choosing or talking about one of my poems is that the impetus behind most of them is the same: a phrase or circumstance became a donnee because it resonated in some instant way, and I used it — and sometimes the actual donnee doesn’t survive the process of writing — to write something. It’s the resonance that interests me to turn the phrase over and look at it, clean it up, smear it with something, make it start, make it finish, bury it in the middle, whatever. The question that strikes me about a phrase with resonance is why does it resonate? The poem is the answer. In my view poetry is what a poet does to make a reader feel that resonance by putting it in a context that moves the reader to a feeling. I reject the notion that poetry is the poet expressing their feelings — at least, I don’t say poets cannot express their feelings, but that that expression must be in the service of making the reader feel the reader’s feelings in a directed way. Poetry is a method to make the reader resonate emotionally in response to the words.. If the best you can do is blurt out your pain or joy or whatever, then you’re doing it wrong. Yes, wrong. Write it in your diary, because poetry has never been about the poet. It’s always been about how the poet can make the reader feel in a directed way by using words, not a therapy-substitute for the poet. If you need therapy, get it, but don’t scatter the resulting words across ragged-margined pages and call it poetry.’

Not much is known about Marcus Bales except that he lives and works in Cleveland, Ohio, and that his work has not been published in Poetry or The New Yorker. However his “51 Poems” is available from Amazon.

Marcus Bales has appeared in several of the Potcake Chapbooks:

Tourists and Cannibals
Rogues and Roses
Careers and other Catastrophes
“Strip down,” she ordered
Wordplayful
Murder!
Houses and Homes Forever
Robots and Rockets

all available at https://sampsonlow.co/potcake-chapbooks/ for the price of a coffee.

Potcake Poet’s Choice: Amit Majmudar, ‘Eyespots’

Caterpillars build their bunkers out
of terror. Transformation hunts them, haunts them
as oak leaf peepholes open underfoot
to bare the air, the emptiness that wants them.
I have a measure of infinity
inside me. A is no and mit is measure
in an ancestral tongue that haunts me, hunts me.
I’m half in love with what I have to be.
The other half is looking for a razor
to make of me the Amit who was once me,

my yogi’s beard a clump of Spanish moss
limp at my feet, a piece of furry roadkill.
I’m no ascetic. Half in love with loss,
I’ll seek out beauty, or at least my ode will,
night-blooming jasmines dooming my samadhi,
scenting, resenting my hermetic dark
because they know a yogi, breathing in
his first girlfriend’s perfume, unarchives her body,
and drives her, after dusk, to the vanished park
where memory of sin cocoons the sin.

Caterpillars ravel bunkers into
bodybags—no way for them to know
the moment that they poke themselves a window,
the rebirth they were hiding from will show:
Two stained-glass windows mounted on my back,
two earshaped eyespot petals I can flex
and fold, a flailing that transforms to flight
while all the darkling jasmines that I lack,
past loves that called me onward to the next,
unpetal in the bodybag of night.

In love, or half in love, with mere aesthetics,
I’ve daydreamed Himalayan caves, a hive
that hums with “Aum” from ninety-nine ascetics,
their senses hibernating, half alive.
No one has ever scaled Kailash, the peak
where Shiva sits in bud, in shut-flytrap samadhi
with ashes smeared across his chest and arms.
But that’s just not the changelessness I seek.
I want my language, shapely as a body,
to weave and rive cocoons, enchantments, forms

with giant wings inside their ashgray berries.
I want my transience to live in speech,
if only as a resonance that carries,
like jasmine scent, beyond my voice’s reach.
I tell myself: Old soul, don’t be afraid
of changing. You are old enough to know,
whenever something changes, something dies,
but the dark you flowered in won’t let you fade.
A crack in this cocoon admits a glow.
The blue moon butterfly will wear your eyes.

Amit Majmudar writes: “This poem, ‘Eyespots’, is what I think of as a Keatsian ode, borrowing its stanzaic form and (I hope) something of its musicality. Yet the poem incorporates Hindu religious imagery throughout and sings of self-transformation in a way that isn’t to be found in Keats. This hybridization of Eastern and Western traditions in the poem feels idiosyncratic. There remain elements still opaque to me about it; so I never really delved into the metaphysical significance of the title’s false eyes, these seeming sense organs that are not actually sensing anything, but, given the focus on ascetic imagery, there seems to be something in that. Maybe in another essay? Or another poem….

I feel as though there are poems I have written that someone else could conceivably have written. But not this one; even ignoring that my name hides caterpillar-like inside the cocoon of the poem, I feel that the range of influences and ideas is simply too idiosyncratically “me” for this to have come from any other poet’s hand. Will everyone like it? Probably not, for precisely that reason. But I know that no one else could have produced this sequence of words, so I confess a certain fondness for it. It’s the one of my literary children who most resembles me. And it’s as good a way as any to get to know me as a writer.”

Amit Majmudar is a diagnostic nuclear radiologist who lives in Westerville, Ohio, with his wife and three children. The former first Poet Laureate of Ohio, he is the author of the poetry collections What He Did in Solitary and Dothead among other novels and poetry collections. Awarded the Donald Justice Prize and the Pushcart Prize, Majmudar’s work has appeared in The New York Times, The New Yorker, Best of the Best American Poetry, and the eleventh edition of The Norton Introduction to Literature. Two novels are forthcoming in India in 2022: an historical novel about the 1947 Partition entitled The Map and the Scissors, and a novel for young readers, Heroes the Color of Dust. Visit www.amitmajmudar.com for more details.

‘Eyespots’ was first published in Measure Review.

Poem: ‘Love Poetry’

All the love expressed in poems overtly
Seems so pure they can be taught in schools,
Yet reading lives of all these divine fools
You realise that the impulses
That drove them to express themselves in verse
Include love that repulses
(Differing by era), and was forbidden:
Incest, same sex, underage, interracial,
Interfaith, cross-generational,
BDSM – even a pet, a dog.
Scandalous, and kept hidden,
At worst horrific and at best uncouth –
Yet all identity is just a fog
Of “You, my love”, expressed covertly.
And kids in school are never taught the truth.

Seriously, no one seems to pay any attention to the realities behind the love poetry that is taught and studied in schools. But much of the reason for the admired poem being so forceful is often that the poet was conflicted about being able to express their love at all – gay in a time of homosexual suppression is the one most easily identified now (in Shakespeare, Byron, etc, just as there are similar non-poetic gay passages in the Bible), but any strong but forbidden desire is capable of producing fine art.

This poem is not really formal. It has rhyme and meter but it is unstructured. Semi-formal, then, like much of the best work of Arnold and Eliot. It was published in that edgy, carefree journal the Rat’s Ass Review – thanks, Rick Bates!

“Love Poetry” by Kez Price is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Sonnet: ‘Fat-shaming’

Gorging on food, an atavistic trait
useful, essential, in the paleolithic–
like a man’s lust for teenage girl as mate–
is one not needed now, shamed as horrific.
It’s healthy, though, to recognise such drives,
note where they came from, why they once were good:
these traits in which the primitive survives,
inbuilt components of our personhood.

It’s acting on them, though, that we deplore:
those who fuck teens and those who overfeed,
like those who steal, or lie, or start a war,
aren’t shamed for primitive desire, but deed–
like those who pray to gods, follow religions,
or skry the future from entrails of pigeons.

It’s not PC these days to even mention various issues, and I seem to have covered a lot of them in this sonnet. But it’s a decent enough Shakespearean sonnet (iambic pentameter, ABAB CDCD EFEF GG, volta between the octave and sestet) and also a good enough expression of an opinion, so what is there to complain about? Originally published in that not-always-comfortable but always formal ‘The Road Not Taken – A Journal of Formal Poetry’. Thanks, Dr. Kathryn Jacobs!

“Young and Fat” by Tobyotter is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Short Poem: ‘Cryo Limerick’

The correct thing to do, when you’re dead,
Is have someone take care of your head;
There’s no chance of more drama
Without Futurama –
Don’t say you weren’t warned – act, instead.

Humans have tried to beat death since forever. Chinese herbs, Egyptian mummification, unlikely (but lucrative) promises of Paradise. In the present rapidly-evolving environment, transhumanism thrives on the ideas of physically and genetically modifying us for a longer life, and cryonics suggests being frozen as an “ambulance to the future” when repairs might be possible. The “head in a jar” image captures the wry appreciation that this stuff may work in the future, but won’t be of any use to us. But so what if the chance of success is a fraction of a percent? That still beats the chances of further life after cremation, or after being processed through the bodies of worms…

This limerick was originally published in ‘Transhumanity‘, edited by James Hughes. Both the magazine and the transhumanist movement have gone through changes of name and state, but the ideas are no longer as far on the fringe as they were a couple of decades ago.

“Futurama…?” by Emanuele Rosso is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0