Tag Archives: Michael R. Burch

Potcake Poet’s Choice: Michael R. Burch, “Poetry”

Michael Burch

Michael R. Burch

Michael R. Burch’s chosen poem Poetry, and the story behind his choice, and are so interwoven that his entire essay Making of a Poet is reproduced here with the poem at the very end:

While I don’t consider “Poetry” to be my best poem—I wrote the first version in my teens—it’s a poem that holds special meaning for me. I call it my ars poetica. Here’s how it came about …

When I was eleven years old, my father, a staff sergeant in the US Air Force, was stationed in Wiesbaden, Germany. We were forced to live off-base for two years, in a tiny German village where there were no other American children to play with, and no English radio or TV stations. To avoid complete boredom, I began going to the base library, checking out eight books at a time (the limit), reading them in a few days, then continually repeating the process. I quickly exhausted the library’s children’s fare and began devouring its adult novels along with a plethora of books about history, science and nature.

In the fifth grade, I tested at the reading level of a college sophomore and was put in a reading group of one. I was an incredibly fast reader: I flew through books like crazy. I was reading Austen, Dickens, Hardy, et al, while my classmates were reading whatever one normally reads in grade school. My grades shot through the roof and from that day forward I was always the top scholar in my age group, wherever I went.

But being bright and ultra-self-educated does not invariably lead to happiness. I was tall, scrawny, introverted and socially awkward. I had trouble making friends. I began to dabble in poetry around age thirteen, but then we finally were granted base housing and for two years I was able to focus on things like marbles, quarters, comic books, baseball, basketball and football. And, from an incomprehensible distance, girls.

When I was fifteen my father retired from the Air Force and we moved back to his hometown of Nashville. While my parents were looking for a house, we lived with my grandfather and his third wife. They didn’t have air-conditioning and didn’t seem to believe in hot food—even the peas and beans were served cold!—so I was sweaty, hungry, lonely, friendless and miserable. It was at this point that I began to write poetry seriously. I’m not sure why. Perhaps because my options were so limited and the world seemed so impossibly grim and unfair.

Writing poetry helped me cope with my loneliness and depression. I had feelings of deep alienation and inadequacy, but suddenly I had found something I could do better than anyone around me. (Perhaps because no one else was doing it at all?)

However, I was a perfectionist and poetry can be very tough on perfectionists. I remember becoming incredibly frustrated and angry with myself. Why wasn’t I writing poetry like Shelley and Keats at age fifteen? I destroyed all my poems in a fit of pique. Fortunately, I was able to reproduce most of the better poems from memory, but two in particular were lost forever and still haunt me.

In the tenth grade, at age sixteen, I had a major breakthrough. My English teacher gave us a poetry assignment. We were instructed to create a poetry booklet with five chapters of our choosing. I still have my booklet, a treasured memento, banged out on a Corona typewriter with cursive script, which gave it a sort of elegance, a cachet. My chosen chapters were: Rock Songs, English Poems, Animal Poems, Biblical Poems, and ta-da, My Poems! Audaciously, alongside the poems of Shakespeare, Burns and Tennyson, I would self-publish my fledgling work! My teacher wrote “This poem is beautiful” beside one my earliest compositions, “Playmates.” Her comment was like rocket fuel to my stellar aspirations. Surely I was next Keats, the next Shelley! Surely immediate and incontrovertible success was now fait accompli, guaranteed!

Of course I had no idea what I was getting into. How many fifteen-year-old poets can compete with the immortal bards? I was in for some very tough sledding because I had good taste in poetry and could tell the difference between merely adequate verse and the real thing. I continued to find poetry vexing. Why the hell wouldn’t it cooperate and anoint me its next Shakespeare, pronto?

Then I had another breakthrough. I remember it vividly. I working at a McDonald’s at age seventeen, salting away money for college because my parents had informed me they didn’t have enough money to pay my tuition. Fortunately, I was able to earn a full academic scholarship, but I still needed to make money for clothes, dating (hah!), etc. I was sitting in the McDonald’s break room when I wrote a poem, “Reckoning” (later re-titled “Observance”), that sorta made me catch my breath. Did I really write that? For the first time, I felt like a “real poet.”

Observance

Here the hills are old, and rolling
casually in their old age;
on the horizon youthful mountains
bathe themselves in windblown fountains . . .

By dying leaves and falling raindrops,
I have traced time’s starts and stops,
and I have known the years to pass
almost unnoticed, whispering through treetops . . .

For here the valleys fill with sunlight
to the brim, then empty again,
and it seems that only I notice
how the years flood out, and in . . .

Another poem, “Infinity,” written around age eighteen, again made me feel like a real poet.

Infinity

Have you tasted the bitterness of tears of despair?
Have you watched the sun sink through such pale, balmless air
that your soul sought its shell like a crab on a beach,
then scuttled inside to be safe, out of reach?

Might I lift you tonight from earth’s wreckage and damage
on these waves gently rising to pay the moon homage?
Or better, perhaps, let me say that I, too,
have dreamed of infinity . . . windswept and blue.

Now, two “real poems” in two years may not seem like a big deal to non-poets. But they were very big deals to me. I would go off to college feeling that I was, really, a real poet, with two real poems under my belt. I felt like someone, at last. I had, at least, potential.

But I was in for another rude shock. Being a good reader of poetry—good enough to know when my own poems were falling far short of the mark—I was absolutely floored when I learned that imposters were controlling Poetry’s fate! These imposters were claiming that meter and rhyme were passé, that honest human sentiment was something to be ridiculed and dismissed, that poetry should be nothing more than concrete imagery, etc.

At first I was devastated, but then I quickly became enraged. I knew the difference between good poetry and bad. I could feel it in my flesh, in my bones. Who were these imposters to say that bad poetry was good, and good was bad? How dare they? I was incensed! I loved Poetry. I saw her as my savior because she had rescued me from depression and feelings of inadequacy. So I made a poetic pledge to save my Savior from the imposters:

Poetry

Poetry, I found you where at last they chained and bound you;
with devices all around you to torture and confound you,
I found you—shivering, bare.

They had shorn your raven hair and taken both your eyes
which, once cerulean as Gogh’s skies, had leapt with dawn to wild surmise
of what was waiting there.

Your back was bent with untold care; there savage brands had left cruel scars
as though the wounds of countless wars; your bones were broken with the force
with which they’d lashed your flesh so fair.

You once were loveliest of all. So many nights you held in thrall
a scrawny lad who heard your call from where dawn’s milling showers fall—
pale meteors through sapphire air.

I learned the eagerness of youth to temper for a lover’s touch;
I felt you, tremulant, reprove each time I fumbled over-much.
Your merest word became my prayer.

You took me gently by the hand and led my steps from boy to man;
now I look back, remember when—you shone, and cannot understand
why here, tonight, you bear their brand.

I will take and cradle you in my arms, remindful of the gentle charms
you showed me once, of yore;
and I will lead you from your cell tonight—back into that incandescent light
which flows out of the core of a sun whose robes you wore.
And I will wash your feet with tears for all those blissful years . . .
my love, whom I adore.

Originally published by The Lyric

Michael R. Burch has been published more than 3,500 times, including in the Potcake Chapbook Families and Other Fiascoes. His poems have been translated into eleven languages and set to music by three composers. He also edits TheHyperTexts–a massive and always-growing anthology of poetry past and present. Whether you want John Donne, or Pablo Neruda, or Ronald Reagan, or poems of the Palestinian resistance, or any of the best current poets, this is a good place to start.
http://www.thehypertexts.com/Michael_R_Burch_Poet_Poetry_Picture_Bio.html

Poem: “Cinderella”

Cinderella

Cinderella, by Arthur Rackham

Every youngest daughter’s
Always Cinderella:
Never at the party,
Always in the cellar;

Tired of washing dishes,
Tired of sweeping dirt;
Wants to be a lady,
A scientist, a flirt;

Wants to travel world-wide,
Read till reading’s done;
Wants to be a mother,
Playing in the sun;

Wants to be the princess,
Beauty of the Ball –
Fairytales happen –
Watch, she’ll have it all!

First published in Lighten-Up Online (“LUPO”), the quarterly edited by Jerome Betts in the UK; republished in The HyperTexts, the massive anthology of poetry curated by Michael R. Burch. Good poets, both of them.

Poem: “From the Heart of Europe”

Warning, it’s long: 140 lines. And it’s a rant, a chant, with formal passages only towards the end. It is published in the current issue of Snakeskin, whose editor George Simmers expressed reservations, calling it “your monster of a poem. It’ll be interesting to see if there are indications that anyone gets to the end of it. My suspicion is that 24 lines is about the maximum most people are willing to read online. But I like having an occasional long poem in Snakeskin – gives readers a challenge.

So here it is… “From the Heart of Europe

Europe

I am the Celt, westering across Doggerland
Into the wilds – in me live
The stories of the monsters, dragons, ogres
I found as I struggled through trackless wilderness
Fighting off the wolves, bears and cavemen.
If you would see me, look to Ireland and to France,
To Scotland, Wales, Cornwall and Brittany.
When verbs are forming complicated trains you’re seeing my Gaelic grammar.

And I am the Roman, bringing engineers,
Underfloor heating, square buildings and straight roads.
Ten generations of the Middle Sea –
Italians, Greeks, Egyptians, Libyans –
Braving the cold and damp, our children British…
Until the Empire falls, and some go “home”
To warmer seas, to citrus trees, and Rome.
Look for me in the priestly words,
As in the black Irish who fled the Saxons.

For I am the Angle, Saxon, Jutlander,
Displacing Britons, making Angle-land.
Like ours, all tribes move west and south as Rome succumbs.
Clearing the forests, making free men’s farms,
Avoiding ruins of the Roman towns,
Avoiding ruins of the great square buildings.
Look for me in the fields and farms
Of Essex, Sussex, Saxony,
Of Anglia in England and Anglia in Germany,
And in the daily words of common folk.

Then I am the Viking, avenging Christian slaughter,
Avenging Verden’s massacre, five thousand dead.
Looting and raiding for slaves and wives, and –
Hey, that’s nice land on a quiet river…
Let’s stay here with our meetings and our laws.
Look for me in the Yorkshireman of the Danelaw
And all across the north lands to the east.

I am also the Northman who settled in France –
Where Romans had ruled Celts 500 years –
And now claim the rights of the Viking,
The rights of the Saxon,
Under Roman religion
To rule Angle-land.
I come with the Conqueror, follow the Bastard,
The Builder of Castles and Cities,
With renaissance of learning,
Enlightenment, Parliament,
Even including the poor, and then even women…
Look for me where I continued to conquer –
Where I fought other Europeans to control the world –
My branches spread everywhere – North America, India –
Hong Kong, Australia, Kenya, Jamaica –
But my roots… my roots are in Europe,
From Northlands to Rome and from Ireland to Greece.
You can prune back the branches,
But don’t think of cutting the roots.

When I see a wishing well – my roots
When I see an aqueduct – my roots
When I see men wear trousers – my roots
When I see women’s braids – my roots
When I eat bread and cheese – my roots
When I drink wine and beer – my roots
When I see people vote – my roots
When I hear legal judgement – my roots
When I smell farms and forests – my roots
When I hear waves and seagulls – my roots

And my roots are not without warfare.

In the Great War my grandfather died, so too both his brothers, all in their 20s.
This was not unusual in that war.
Then came a second world war. Europe said “Enough!”
The end of the war. Twin towns were an answer, building links.
Their history begins with Paderborn, Germany, and Le Mans, France.. in 836.
(The UK was a little late to the table, its first twin town was in 1905…)
Coventry now twinned with Dresden and Stalingrad.
The end of the war. The Treaty of Paris of ’51 for the European Coal and Steel Community,
The Treaty of Rome, the EEC of the western 6.
(The UK joined a little late in ’73.)
With Denmark and Ireland in the north, then adding 3 more in the south,
Then 3 more in the north, then 14 in the east,
Until almost Turkey, almost Russia, almost Morocco, Israel…
The Eurovision Song Contest, building links from ’56
(The UK joined late, ’57).
The It’s A Knockout! silly sports on TV (De Gaulle’s idea) from ’65
(The UK joined late, ’67).

Ah, that Europe of 50, 60 years ago…
When north and west and south worked to build links,
And you could wander freely, even go
Into the east (with bureaucratic waits and stamps and inks)…

And I have stood
Under the Transylvanian full moon
And eaten moon-green apples in a smooth wet field
And the lorry-driver spoke no English.

I have hitched
A ride from a Cologne motorway stop
With a limping German who spoke no English
In a fine car with leather seats
Over 250 miles to Hamburg in 2½ hours! – as if he said
“You only think you won the war.”

I have sat
In front of Goya’s Cowherds – Duel with Cudgels –
In the Prado in Madrid, and cried
For me, for us, for Europe, for the world.

I have slept
On the top steps of a Greco-Roman amphitheatre
In the tourist-Turkey fishing village summer nights,
And tourists took my picture.

I have eaten
In the impounded lorries of the smuggling Swiss
At the Turkish-Bulgarian customs zone
And got a ride to Munich.

I have seen
There is one street in Copenhagen no one knows but I.
Invisible, unless you watch those using it go by;
It winds above the buildings, up and down about the sky,
In single file ten thousand go by each day, and no lie! –
(The seagulls heading for the City Dump from out at sea.)

I have walked
South from Glasgow illegally on the motorway
With my thumb out as the snow began to fall.
The Police said “Get in”. They drove in silence 30 miles
And dropped me at a service station.

And still I think of that long night
When through and through the lorry-park
Rutted six inches deep in mud
The madman prowled, distraught and barefoot
Under the full moon, running his fingers through his hair,
Muttering and complaining, shouting aloud,
And the lorry-driver talked with him,
Explained to me
(And I through sparse Spanish guessed at his Romanian)
That the madman in the mud
Had killed someone
Or run him over
Or was on the verge of suicide,
Perhaps all three together…
And the madman muttered barefoot through the mud
Until the sun rose and we went our way.

That was my Europe, yesterday,
as still the British Isles today:
we are where the world meets.
We came, long past, from far away –
and more still come, some go, some stay…
the heart of Europe beats.

-.-.-.-.-

For what it’s worth, instead of those last 6 lines the poem originally had six 4-line stanzas. George Simmers was kind enough to critique them, attacking them from several directions and giving me the opportunity to write something better. They were the most formal section of the entire piece, and in being rejected they help people like Mike Burch make the case that “formal” isn’t the be-all and end-all of poetry.  🙂

Here is the original ending, giving a slightly different meaning and direction to the poem… Anyway, better or worse? What do you think?

But now England may
(Yes, I say May)
Go, with Wales, its own way –
(Though Scotland and Northern Ireland said stay.)

The peace we’ve been blest
With, the growth we’ve possessed
Has led the obsessed
To stoke enmity. Laws were transgressed

In winning the vote.
Weasel words, like a stoat
Changing colour of coat,
Were all lies. May they stick in their throat.

Our Europe is one:
Celt, Roman and Hun
May be how it’s begun,
But now, like the UK, everyone

From all round the globe,
In a suit, in a thobe,
In blue jeans, in a robe,
Has their place – each distinct as in strobe

Light, is lit as a part
Of the waves of fresh start
That newcomers impart
With, like all Europeans, their heart.

Poetry Resources: The HyperTexts

One of the most fascinating – as well as ENORMOUS – repositories of poetry on the Internet is a vast, rambling, straggling site called The Hypertexts. The link here will take you to a listing of hundreds and hundreds of good poets, ancient and modern, well-known and obscure, formal and free, with and without expositions by the site’s creator, poet Michael R. Burch.

William Blake Ancient of Days

William Blake’s “The Ancient of Days”

Want to read William Blake? Or Ronald Reagan’s (surprisingly competent) verse? They’re both here.

Want to read poems on the Holocaust next to poems on the Nakba, the Palestinian Catastrophe? There’s a whole section on it.

Ancient Greek Epitaphs and Epigrams? Anglo-Saxon Riddles and Kennings? Walt Whitman? Wit and Fluff? Everything you could hope for, with more being added all the time.

Truly one of the greatest resources in the world for lovers of poetry!