Monthly Archives: August 2019

Poem: “Move Along Folks, Nothing to See”

JFK.jpg

“Kennedy(s)” by Garrett Leo Augustyn

There was a sharp psychic who lived in DC,
They told her their troubles, she told them “I see”.
She told Mr. Kennedy “Don’t go to Texas”
He went and was killed, it’ll always perplex us.
Amazing, amazing and true
Move along folks, nothing to see.

There was a small bullet was fired from a gun,
You wouldn’t believe the damage it done:
Through Kennedy’s neck, Connally’s chest, wrist and thigh,
Fifteen layers of clothing… and ended up fine.
Amazing, amazing and true
Move along folks, nothing to see.

There was a young drifter, a Commie, Marine,
Who shot and then lunched in the schoolbook canteen
As though he weren’t flustered – two minutes before
He’d been killing, then must have rushed down six floors.
Amazing, amazing and true
Move along folks, nothing to see.

There was a club owner who carried a gun
A friend of the cops, of HQ he’d the run.
“I did it for Jackie” – prevented a trial,
No chance now for Oswald to prove his denial.
Amazing, amazing and true
Move along folks, nothing to see.

There was a Vice President, swallowed his pride
At the President’s insults – when JFK died
He ramped up the war while the nation was grieving –
His weapons and copter stocks passed all believing.
Amazing, amazing and true
Move along folks, nothing to see.

There was a commission that looked for the truth.
Conclusion: a loner, no plot, not like Booth.
The psychic? Ignored. The bullet? Just lucky.
The VP? Heart-broken. The club owner? Plucky.
Amazing, amazing and true
Move along folks, nothing to see.

This was first published in Snakeskin #246, December 2017. It mentions some – but by no means all – of the anomalies surrounding the first Kennedy assassination, reported on but not resolved by the Warren Commission. JFK’s assassination is a rabbit-hole that you can disappear down and never see daylight again, full of intriguing Lewis Carroll-like logic puzzles such as the magic bullet theory.

Unnamed characters here are psychic Jeane Dixon, assassin Lee Harvey Oswald, nightclub owner Jack Ruby and of course Vice President Lyndon Baines Johnson.

Technically the poem is closer to a song than to a formal poem. It has a regular structure of verse and refrain. The rhymes and metre are a little loose, which you can get away with when a song is sung. It just needs the music added.

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Poem: “My Outside”

My outside stroking your inside
Your inside gloving my outside
My outside stroking your
Inside gloving my
Stroking your
Gloving my
Stroking
Gloving
Stroking
Gloving
My your my your my your
Our

This poem was originally published in “The Fifth International Anthology on Paradoxism“, edited by Florentin Smarandache – who appears to live as a mathematician in a universe of paradox. It was republished in the Experimental section of Better Than Starbucks.

This blog advocates for the use of form, to the extent of questioning whether a piece that doesn’t rhyme and scan can even be considered poetry. Is this poetry, then? I think it hovers paradoxically on the edge. It may not rhyme or scan, but it has certain qualities of form:

It is word-for-word memorable through its expression. After all, it only uses seven different words, and they are clearly structured.

The lines are paired all the way, the second of each pair mirroring (or even fusing) the first.

There is a rhythm – a very human rhythm – to the piece, even if it doesn’t fall within poetic norms.

There is even, if you care to consider it, an aspect of concrete poetry about it.

And, if read in my English accent, the last word is a pun, being pronounced “Ahh!”

The simplicity of words, the structure of the lines, the rhythm of the piece, the aspect of concreteness and the pun all contribute to what the poem is trying to communicate.

If it is a poem.

Poem: “Diatribe Against Unversed Poets”

Heartbeat

Heartbeat – “June 1, 2014” by osseous

Ignoring clockwork towns and fertile farms
Tied to the sun-swing as the seas to moon,
They searched for verse in deserts without rhyme,
Lifted erratic rocks nonrhythmically
In search of poetry, then through the slough
Of their emotions hunted for a trail:

“The scent is cold. Its Spirit must have fled;
The body of its work, though dead,
Has been translated to some higher plane.
Look how the world’s translated verse
Comes to us plain—why can’t we emulate?
Then if the words themselves are unimportant,
If poetry in essence is idea,
And song is wrong,
Rhyme a superfluous flamboyance
(Like colour in Van Gogh),
Rhythm a distraction to the memoring mind,
Then we determine poetry’s true form is mime!”

While in the air the deafening blare
Confounds their silence everywhere:
Before our hearts began to beat
We were conceived in rhythmic heat;
So, billions strong, we sing along
For all the time, in time, our time, the song
Goes rocking on in rhythmic rhyme. Rock on!

This was originally published in Snakeskin, the monthly online poetry magazine that George Simmers has been putting out since the 1990s. He is receptive to a range of poetry, but as his original credo states: “Nor shall we sit to lunch with those / Who moralise in semi-prose. / A poem should be rich as cake.”

This poem is a rant against the vast amounts of blather that have been published as “poetry”, while anything showing formal verse skills was automatically rejected by most magazines over the past several decades. The rant is against poets who are “unversed”: “not experienced, skilled, or knowledgeable.” Why should they be given automatic acceptance, when the skilled were automatically rejected? It has been a bizarre half-century. It has a zeitgeist worth considering.

To focus on the United States as the cultural driver of the 20th century: it has always had an anarchic aspect, from the founding tenet of the right to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” – though this mostly applied to adult white males who had a certain level of property. (By contrast, Canada’s constitutional requirement for the federal parliament to provide “peace, order and good government” has a social rather than individual orientation.) The US high water mark for good government came domestically with the FDR-and-Eleanor Roosevelt presidency, and internationally with the founding of the United Nations. But “big government” acquired such nasty connotations thanks to Stalin, Hitler and Mao that those who wanted the freedom to exploit others without legal restriction were able to make a case for “small government” and chip away at government structures.

In poetry, what started with Walt Whitman in the 19th century burst open a century later with Ginsberg, Ferlinghetti, and classrooms where every child was “encouraged in self-expression” without penalties for illiteracy. What was expressed became everything; the how became irrelevant. As in government, freedom from others’ rules became desirable in the literary and artistic community, and in the hippie movement, and the innovative business start-ups of Silicon Valley. There were undoubted benefits… but in literature, the suppression of poetic form was one of the less fortunate results.

Poetry takes different forms in different languages, but the forms all have the same desirable outcome: to make it easier to memorise and recite word-for-word. Alliteration, assonance, rhyme, metre – these are all useful tools for achieving this, along with less tangible tools such as fresh or startling imagery. Metre is viscerally important to us, because the mother’s heartbeat is the background to sensory development in the womb, and our own heartbeat and breathing rhythms continue throughout life. As humans we drum, we dance, we sing, just as we walk and run rhythmically, tap our fingers rhythmically when we are bored, teach small children to clap and sing, teach older children clapping and skipping games. Rhythm is built into us from before birth.

But rhythmic poetry didn’t die when it stopped being publishable. It just went into folk songs, blues, rock, country-and-western, musicals, rap, hip hop… Popular music let teenagers and adults continue to thrive with what they were not given by schools: rhythm and rhyme. This drive to make words memorable and recitable is part of who we humans are. So schools do best when they leaven “creative self-expression” with getting kids to learn things by heart, and to pay attention to the qualities that make it easy to memorise and recite.

Poem: “The Moral Aesthetics of Politics”

The sense of poetry pervades all life:
Intense sensation, far-abstracted math,
Calm observation, passion-fired strife,
The glorious rise, the decadent aftermath.

Forgive me, pitying gods, for loving all
When “all” includes the tortured, starving, mad.
Symphonic raptures round pride’s bugle call
Drown out the truths where glory would be sad.

The very movement of the people lives,
Starring a missionary, or clown, or thief;
The moral climate either steals or gives –
It faith-filled strives, or slumps in disbelief.

So, in these patchwork years of peace and war,
Detached to calm the passionate lies that lurk,
We love life’s good and ill, but, more and more,
Our sympathetic vision makes us work.

“The Moral Aesthetics of Politics” was first published in The Penwood Review, which apparently possesses a faith-driven sense of superiority, something I was unaware of when I submitted the poem. Without warning, let alone a request for permission, they changed the word “gods” to “God”. Then, either as an apology or because the change glorified their self-righteousness, the poem was awarded the Editor’s Choice certificate.

I have always felt irritated by this, partly at them, partly at myself for not having checked them out more carefully. I used the word “gods” to signal a lack of belief. That’s how I’ve always understood the word, anyway: “The gods must be smiling on us” means “We’ve been lucky”. It is a deliberately tongue-in-cheek word used by the non-religious. But the editors made my poem religious, damn them. My only consolation is that I don’t think it is a very good poem.

Technically, the poem is okay: quatrains of iambic pentameter rhyming ABAB. Nothing special. And the overall gist is clear enough: you should help people. But the title? “The Moral Aesthetics of Politics”? What does that even mean? Why “aesthetics”? (Maybe the British spelling held a charm for them. Maybe “Dimension” would have been a better word, but it’s not as flamboyant.) From the first line on, the meaning is often vague, or arguable.

But then again, politics “starring a missionary, or clown, or thief”… I admit that resonates. Maybe the poem does have a couple of redeeming lines, after all.

Sonnet: “Out Island Town in the Early Morning”

Harbour reflection

Harbour reflection

Before the sun is up, the people are.
Fishermen have gone out, for noon’s fierce light
Will punish them, and their desires are slight:
To sell their catch, drink cold beer by a bar.
The workers hitch rides with some early car
That will go fairly near their building site.
Women prep kids’ meals, feeling it’s not right
To have to leave to clean some tourist spa.

Only the unemployed and office staff
Still sleep while roosters crow and seagulls laugh,
And the light rising in its eastern glow
Shows Harbour houses in a double row,
One on the Cay, the other upside down
Painted on windless glass, a mirror town.

This sonnet was first published in The Hypertexts, the massive poetry collection assembled by Michael R. Burch. There’s not much to say about the poem… it’s a love poem to Governor’s Harbour, my home town.

But sonnets in general have a charm for many people. They seem just the right size both to hold a description or a complex thought that has tendrils in various directions, and to be small enough to be memorised. They are a good tool for high school classrooms, containing a richness of thought for analysis and an opportunity to develop memory skills. They allow a learner to absorb and express the power of the language’s potential for rhythm and rhyme. A good education will have made you familiar with dozens of sonnets, and they and their organising principles remain deeply embedded somewhere within you all your life.

Review: “Selected Poems” by Gwendolyn Brooks

Gwendolyn Brooks

“Selected Poems” covers the best of Gwendolyn Brooks‘ poetry from her first book in 1944 up to 1963. It is vibrant, amusing, angry, always insightful – sometimes formal, sometimes experimental, always rich, always quotable. To me (with British sensibilities) this is some of the greatest American poetry of the 20th century, on a par with Frost and cummings.

Born in 1917, Brooks’ poetry dealt with the real world – the black experience in Chicago and throughout the US, with a strong feminine sensibility. The opening poem “kitchenette building” of her first book (A Street in Bronzeville, published 1945) sets the tone:

We are things of dry hours and the involuntary plan,
Grayed in, and gray. “Dream” makes a giddy sound, not strong
Like “rent,” “feeding a wife,” “satisfying a man.”

But could a dream send up through onion fumes
Its white and violet, fight with fried potatoes
And yesterday’s garbage ripening in the hall,
Flutter, or sing an aria down these rooms

Even if we were willing to let it in,
Had time to warm it, keep it very clean,
Anticipate a message, let it begin?

We wonder. But not well! not for a minute!
Since Number Five is out of the bathroom now,
We think of lukewarm water, hope to get in it.

Dreams and reality were both important in her upbringing. Her father had given up on medical school and become a janitor in order to get married and raise a family. Her mother was a school teacher and concert pianist. Reading and recitation were high priorities in the family, and Brooks started writing poetry very early. Four of her poems were published in a local paper when she was 11, and her mother encouraged her, saying ”You are going to be the lady Paul Laurence Dunbar.” Material was all around her, and she dealt with it unflinchingly. The second poem in the book was called, with deliberate irony, “the mother”. It begins:

Abortions will not let you forget.
You remember the children you got that you did not get,
The damp small pulps with a little or with no hair,
The singers and workers that never handled the air.

Children in several poems are trying to find their place in the world. “a song in the front yard” begins:

I’ve stayed in the front yard all my life.
I want a peek at the back
Where it’s rough and untended and hungry weed grows.
A girl gets sick of a rose.

Brooks uses form very fluently, choosing form for the mood of the poem: from near nursery rhyme:

Maud went to college.
Sadie stayed at home.
Sadie scraped life
With a fine-toothed comb.

to pages of iambic pentameter with frequent rhyme for “The Sundays of Satin-Legs Smith”:

Inamoratas, with an approbation,
Bestowed his title. Blessed his inclination.

And this first volume ends with a dozen sonnets, all with slant (or near) rhyme. It was wartime, but the issues of race were in the military as elsewhere. One of the sonnet titles barely needs its poem: “the white troops had their orders but the Negroes looked like men”.

“A Street in Bronzeville” brought her two years of Guggenheim Fellowships and other awards. Her second book, “Annie Allen” made her the first black writer to win a Pulitzer Prize in any category. Next came a novel, then a volume of poetry for children, and then in 1960 her third book of adult poetry, “The Bean Eaters”:

They eat beans mostly, this old yellow pair.
Dinner is a casual affair.
Plain chipware on a plain and creaking wood,
Tin flatware.

Two who are Mostly Good.
Two who have lived their day,
But keep on putting on their clothes
And putting things away.

And remembering…
Remembering, with twinklings and twinges,
As they lean over the beans in their rented back room that is full
of beads and receipts and dolls and cloths, tobacco
crumbs, vases and fringes.

Civil rights. Mississippi. Arkansas. That all became part of her poetry, moving on from Chicago. The lynching of Emmett Till. The integration of a high school by the Little Rock Nine. All in her poems:

And true, they are hurling spittle, rock,
Garbage and fruit in Little Rock.
And I saw coiling storm a-writhe
On bright madonnas. And a scythe
Of men harassing brownish girls.
(The bows and barrettes in the curls
And braids declined away from joy.)

I saw a bleeding brownish boy…

The lariat lynch-wish I deplored.

The loveliest lynchee was our Lord.

This review can’t even mention all the truly memorable poems in the book, but it covers enough to show Brooks’ range of styles and interests. She became increasingly active in black issues, and she continued to write and to rack up awards and prizes, up until her death in 2000. But this “Selected Poems” only goes up to 1963 because she left her original publisher, Harper & Row, in order to work with a black start-up publisher in Detroit. Not a problem. This “Selected Poems” alone places Gwendolyn Brooks in the very forefront of American poetry.

Poem: “Camelot at Dusk”

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(Photo: Castle by epredator)

From under low clouds spreading from the south
The red sun drops slow to night’s waiting mouth.
Rush lamps are lit; the guards changed on the walls;
Supper will not be served in the Great Halls
With Arthur still away. Each in their room,
The members of the Court leave books or loom
To say their Vespers in the encroaching gloom.

Lancelot, up in his tower,
Sees the sunset storm clouds glower,
Feels his blood’s full tidal power,
Knows he has to go.
In her bower, Gwenivere
Puts a ruby to her ear,
Brushes firelight through her hair,
Feels her heartbeat grow.

Guard, guard, watch well:
For the daylight thickens
And the low cloud blackens
And the hot heart quickens
To rebel.

From his tower, caring not
For consequences, Lancelot
Crosses courts of Camelot,
Pitying his King.
In her bower, Gwenivere
Feels his presence coming near,
Waits for footfalls on the stair,
Lets her will take wing.

Guard, guard, watch well:
If attention slackens
When the deep bond beckons,
Evil knows Pendragon’s
In its spell.

And as the storm clouds, rubbing out the stars,
Deafened the castle and carved lightning scars,
Drenched Arthur rode for flash-lit Camelot
Where he, by Queen and Knight, was all forgot.

“Camelot at Dusk” was originally published by Candelabrum, a now-defunct poetry magazine in the UK which appeared twice-yearly from April 1970 to October 2010. Candelabrum provided what, in the 1970s, was a very rare platform for British poets working in metrical and rhymed verse.

Technically, the poem uses a variety of forms. The opening and closing passages use iambic pentameter with simple sequential rhyme for a level of detachment (and the only times Arthur is mentioned by name). The passages with Lancelot and Gwenivere use shorter trochaic lines with denser rhymes for more intensity. The passages of warnings to the guards… well, they have a shifting but repeating structure all their own.

Because of the bracketing of the more emotional passages by the more detached opening and closing, the piece feels very complete. As a whole, it is a nonce form. Whether I can ever repeat it successfully, I don’t know. I have tried, but not been as satisfied with the result.

“Camelot at Dusk” can also now be found in The Hypertexts, which thereby gives it a very respectable Seal of Approval.