Readers, as you will note, once more I have this month vacated my space in this note so that we might continue to offer a new element, instead: the authors of the poems (or translations, or both) speaking of their works’ origins, their raisons d’être. I think you’ll find the results fascinating, and enlightening, enriching your reading of the poems, as I did. And given the positive feedback on this change, I suspect we will continue it for the foreseeable future, so don’t be surprised if this section bears a new name soon.
Dick Allen on “On the Grounds of the Zendo”
“On the Grounds of the Zendo” is an example of “Randomism.”
To write in this mode, I generally begin with arriving at a specific place, another person with me, and a situation.
Then, trying to be open to what the poem wants in what used to be known in previous centuries as “listening to the Muse,” I follow the poem wherever it leads. The poem progresses by sounds and rhythms arising out of previous sounds and rhythms, by image associations, tiny aspects of plot, thoughts and feelings expressed by the persona (usually like me but never really me) telling the poem. Line by line, I have no idea of what will happen next, what the poem’s theme might become, how the poem will end.
Almost always, fragments of songs occur just as they do constantly in the heads of almost all of us in the 21st Century. These fragments can signal transitions from one disparate element to another. Although not used in this particular Randomism poem, ellipses can also occur frequently—one thought or feeling trailing off and another arriving
. . . .Did exactly what happens in this poem actually take place or not? If you believe in multi-dimension theories of the universe, as I do, yes it most definitely did. But if the poem is a fiction, still it contains true personal elements: a years-ago visit to Big Sur, a paraphrase of how I leaned to listen, found in a Boy Scout Field Book of my youth. Thoughts of my aging, a favorite song of mine, a favorite poem, my Buddhist obsession with trying—in much of my poetry—to evoke calm.
Our house is filled with Buddha statues, as is this woman’s yard. And like other Americans, I often get UPS deliveries. Unbidden, the statues and the truck came into the poem. I liked their presence here, their juxtapositions.
If a Randomism poem succeeds there are likely to be all sorts of similar things in it. Some may lie on distant shelves, some may bounce beneath your feet: Strangeness. Clutter. Stretches of emptiness. A Campbell’s soup can atop a turtle’s back.
I don’t know why the woman broke into singing what she did.
However, I’ve always believed that there should be elements in a poem that the poet doesn’t understand, perhaps reflecting how little any of us understand life.
The key phrase, I see in retrospect, is “You can never tell.”
What truly startled me as the poem ended was how physical was the connection between the human body and the spiritual.
That kiss in the poem’s closure came during the first draft. It stayed through all subsequent drafts (each requiring a new relaxing into listening to and transcribing what the poem wanted) taking place over several years.
William Trowbridge on “Vanishing Point”
When I was an undergrad philosophy major, I became especially interested in our immersion in phenomena and our corresponding separation from noumena. The vanishing point is an example of what separates us. It’s an illusion that keeps us at the center of our world, with objects growing larger as we approach them and smaller as we go away. Of course, the sky and earth don’t really vanish into each other at the horizon: they only seem to. Our senses place us at the center of a perceptual cone, a kind of cartoon dunce cap, which moves with us as we move. This separation from the really real seems closely related the point Plato makes in The Republic with his cave analogy. In the poem, I try to identify a moral dimension of the vanishing point: suffering that’s far away from us in place and/or time tends to seem much less significant than suffering that’s close at hand, especially our own.
Sydney Lea on “Of Course”
“Of Course” is not an especially short poem, of course; but it was once quite a long one. Too long. I worked for some weeks at paring down what seemed its extraneities (its moperies on aging, on eroding memory, on minor medical problems, which, in a hyper-elaborated simile, I likened to mechanical breakdowns in cars, and so on). What, I asked, as I try always to ask of a draft, are the essentials here?
I conceived “Of Course” –or “3 a.m.” as it was originally called– shortly after the election of our Narcissist in Chief, and that was an essential element in the poem, one that, as is so often the case, I didn’t recognize as such for quite a spell. When it dawned on me, I recognized that by my lights it was 3 a.m. in the nation, the eerie hour when all manner of disaster seems imminent. That struck me as far more than a mere disappointment; it was and remains frightening.
Though I concede that to say so involves considerable speculation, I’d bet my great socio-political disenchantment led me to think of my days in the New Left, when, in our callowness, my colleagues and I felt we had the power to transform a misguided nation into something true and good and beautiful.
A 3 a.m. meditation of my own involved my awareness, precisely, of that very callowness. Callowness and arrogance, as instanced, say, by our condescension toward that poor (in all senses) single-mom neighbor, who was just trying to find an extra buck or two to support her family by peddling Tupperware. Tupperware, we scoffed, the very emblem of American tackiness.
A further meditation, implicit, I hope, in the current version of “Of Course,” is that such elitism (a label we would have angrily rejected) was one basis for the backlash that issued in President Trump. At 74, I pray we’ll do better next time– provided there is a next time for me, for “us,” for the U.S.
Eric Pankey on from THE BOOK OF HOURS
I have included lyric sequences in each of my books. This particular one is forthcoming in a book, Owl of Minerva, from Milkweed Editions in 2018. I found myself, in the writing of “Book of Hours,” interested in the formal problem of creating a gravity that at once held things apart and held them together, each part a distinct hour in the whole of a day. Some of my favorite lyric sequences include Montale’s “Cuttlefish Bones,” and “Motets” and Stevens’ “The Auroras of Autumn.” Some contemporary practitioners of the form I admire include Jay Wright, Laynie Browne, and Arthur Sze.
Jo-Ann Mort on “Summer Circa 1967-2xxxx”
I am finishing a manuscript called Time Travel, from which this poem comes—the collection is mostly poems that start from a past memory, leading the poem wherever it chooses.
The poem, Summer Circa 1967-2xxxx began with a memory that catapulted through the decades into this century. One morning recently, I burnt my arm with a curling iron, something I do too frequently. The burn reminded me of the second-degree sunburn I used to get as a kid, when my mother would tell me not to worry because the burn would turn to tan. This led to me remembering my mother sunbathing with other women in our neighborhood in the 1960s, gleaming in baby oil with tin foil reflectors, as their skin baked. Quickly, my mind jumped to thoughts of my mother when she was aging–and how her skin was impacted by her earlier habits. I recalled her visiting me in my apartment in Brooklyn, just before she died, when I once saw the dark hairs beneath her chin that I clipped away. That’s when I realized that this poem was really about the fear of becoming my mother and of aging, not simply a poem about the bad habits of 1960s suburbia.
Daniel Bourne on from “The Seven Deadly Sins”
As with all sin, one thing led to another.
I can’t remember why I decided to put my own stamp on the seven deadly sins, but I do remembering that I wanted them to all to be speaking in tongues, to be on the edge of all control, and to reference a world in distress more or less like the one surrounding us here in 2017, an unsustainable landscape of hormone-stuffed turkeys and consumerism on steroids. Certainly Greed and Gluttony come off as all-devouring, windbags spewing a Bruegel’s feast of imagery. In fact, Greed is like the map in Borges’ story that is as large as the world itself. He not only wants everything, but to anticipate everything that can be wanted. He even wants to subsume the other sins. But I am hardly above reproach. I have always considered myself a listener, a pack rat of other people’s voices and stories. Their words came in and my words came out. Les sept péchés mortels, c’est moi.