If you can recover from the current news of the day and delve into the potential for greatness (not the fucked-upness) of people, then let's explore the wonders of poetry together. No, wait, hear me out. I rarely read or seek out much poetry. A lot of it leaves me in a hypnotic dreamscape, similar to long college lectures where I doodled obsessively, first in the margins of my notes, then in the body of the notes, and often, just covering entire sheets of paper, rather than take notes at all. Except with poetry, you can't doodle while you're reading it. Your mind can run off in little doodle tangents though, and mine often does. Where was I? Oh yes, poetry. Well, anyhow, I don't consider myself a great champion of well-stocked libraries of poetry, but I do have a small collection and I'll share some of my faves, in honor of the month.
What's great about poetry? Strangely enough, it's very fun to write, due to all the classic rules and regulations about it set down over millennium. You're free to break the rules or not. It's like a puzzle of words and emotions interlocking into one big subconscious coagulation. If you're not up on all the requirements of the Ballad, the Ode, the Sestina, the Sonnet, Haiku or Epigram, or if you'd just like some creative inspiration and great writing exercises, there's a book that I love to re-visit each year, Creating Poetry by John Drury. One of the best books on my shelf.
(Note: some of the line breaks are slightly off, due to the limitations of HTML--pity.)
First up, Emily Dickinson - 1830-1886. Hyper-intelligent, prolific, hermetic, possibly bisexual, a wee bit god-less. She wrote of death, fame and bees--over 1700 poems worth (found after she died). The poet’s poet.
I felt a funeral in my brain,
And mourners, to and fro,
Kept treading, treading, till it seemed
That sense was breaking through.
And when they all were seated,
A service like a drum
Kept beating, beating, till I thought
My mind was going numb.
And then I heard them lift a box,
And creak across my soul
With those same boots of lead, again.
Then space began to toll.
As all the heavens were a bell,
And Being but an ear,
And I and silence some strange race,
Wrecked, solitary, here.
Wild nights! Wild nights!
Were I with thee,
Wild nights should be
Futile the winds
To a heart in port, -
Done with the compass,
Done with the chart.
Rowing in Eden!
Ah! the sea!
Might I but moor
To-night in thee!
Bob Kaufman - 1925 - 1986. Kaufman was a beat poet and surrealist who settled in San Francisco by way of New Orleans and was considered the “American Rimbaud” in France. He famously took a vow of silence when JFK was assassinated and he didn’t break it until the end of the Vietnam War. He liked to jump on cars while reciting poetry and a lot of his stuff was written on bags, scraps of paper, whatever was lying around, and then salvaged by his wife for publication. Even so, there’s not a lot of his stuff in a readable format because he liked to improvise to live jazz. And he was often in and out of jail for vagrancy and other trumped-up offenses by the SF Police. It definitely was not easy being an African-American Buddhist beat poet in 60s San Francisco, despite its reputation for embracing the world’s weirdos. My dad was a Bob Kaufman fan, or I never would have heard of the guy. Even the Beat Culture exhibit at the De Young Museum in ’96 didn’t mention him (maybe he was in there somewhere, but if so, I couldn’t find him; it was a big exhibit). Dig the rhythms.
Big Fanny & stromin vine deal,
all that’s left of the largest colony
of the new world, who coulda guessed it
no one in his right mind.
Poets don’t sneak into zoos & talk with tigers anymore,
even though they read Blake & startle all by striped
devices, while those poems of God pout, lurking & sundried torn tree
William Blake never saw a tiger & never fucked a lamb.
you get off at fifty ninth street, forever
The first man was an idealist, but he died,
he couldn’t survive the final truth,
discovering that the whole
world, all of it, was all his, he sat down
& with a little piece of string, & a sharp stone
Pale brown Moses went down to Egypt land
To let somebody’s people go.
Keep him out of Florida, no UN there:
The poor governor is all alone,
With six hundred thousand illiterates.
America, I forgive you…I forgive you
Nailing black Jesus to an imported cross
Every six weeks in Dawson, Georgia.
America, I forgive you…I forgive you
Eating black children, I know your hunger.
America, I forgive you…I forgive you
Burning Japanese babies defensively -
I realize how necessary it was.
Your ancestor had beautiful thoughts in his brain.
His descendants are experts in real estate.
Your generals have mushrooming visions.
Every day your people get more and more
Cars, televisions, sickness, death dreams.
You must have been great
La Loca - I don’t know exactly when Pamala “La Loca” Karol was born and I sure hope she’s still alive. We met and hung out for a little while in the late 80s/early 90s, then lost touch. She has hardly any Internet presence, but this one entry from Australian poet, Laurie Duggan’s epic diary posting (1968 - 2005!) captures the exact same moment in time that I met her in 1987. Except I met her on the phone at our college radio station at SF State U., then in person; otherwise, the meeting was exactly the same. She was working it:
…Michael & I are approached by a seemingly young new-wavish woman called Pamala Karol (a.k.a. La Loca) who hands us parcels with tapes & samples of her work & proceeds to spiel speedily with a valley-girl accent. She talks to Michael first & immediately tells him she has only been writing 2 years, since her operation for ovarian cancer. It turns out she is ‘37½’… I get cornered by La Loca who delivers me a spiel about her coming debut at the Winter Poetry Olympics in Calgary (where it seems Australia’s entry is Blanche D’Alpuget . . .). She is finally taken aside by a guy in a black T-shirt who enters the room from nowhere, after making me promise I’ll see her perform in San Francisco next week (after I read the material later I’m not enthusiastic).
Only difference is that I very much liked her work and performance. Her poetry is both bizarro and personal. I like that her stuff is seriously twisted and very So-Cal, where she’s from. She grew up in poor, Latino neighborhoods and her family was like something out of a Lynda Barry comic. She asked me once to take her shopping on Haight Street to buy some skull jewelry and afterward thanked me for braving the most heinous shopping experience of our lives (it was just a typical day on Haight Street, no biggie). We had a falling out over something really weird that I can’t quite remember, like a ride to Berkeley, or a stay on a couch overnight that didn’t happen. Some sort of miscommunication before there were cell phones and email to tie everything together a little more logically. I miss your writing Pamala. Write if you can. (La Loca’s best works are really lengthy, theatrically macabre and funny; here’s a short one, due to space restraints.)
KIDDIE SHOWS I USED TO WATCH
My mother lashed me to the
where everything was Black & White
and she turned it on.
Captain Kangaroo had a lap
like a department store Santa.
I was left alone on the couch with
Mighty Mouse and Crusader Rabbit.
Roadrunner, Daffy, Flex, Bullwinkle, Bugs & Rags
leaped into the living
room with soft paws and falsettos while their
villain, forever penned, leered through the incandescent
cage, gnashed their teeth and growled.
I could black it out with a button.
my mother bellied by
in spike mules and a
to answer the
for some grisly simian
who came to fix her washing machine.
He looked like that scary caricature of a
“stranger” thumbtacked on the
wall of my kindergarten.
They open their car
and offer you pomegranate suckers but you
mustn’t get in with them.
Through the carefully left
in the kitchen
I could see my mother posing on a
stepladder and chirping and pointing
the painted toenails of one foot
at her busted wringer;
her Spring-O-Later dangling mid-air by a strap,
her instep bobbing it
I could also see a three-fingered hand
with enormous knuckles,
covered with hair like rusty nails,
grasping a tool.
Porky and Goofy,
beardless and puffy,
stood at the loosed
of our harem,
with red lollipops in their mouths.
Elizabeth Bishop - 1911 - 1979. Man, sorry this post is just sooooo loooong--it’s poetry and it fucks things up. Here’s a classic poem. I don’t know why I like it so much but it always is fun to read. I guess it’s so immediate that it’s almost surreal.
I caught a tremendous fish
and held him beside the boat
half out of water, with my hook
fast in a corner of its mouth.
He didn’t fight.
He hadn’t fought at all.
He hung a grunting weight,
battered and venerable
and homely. Here and there
his brown skin hung in strips
like ancient wallpaper,
and its pattern of darker brown
was like wallpaper:
shapes like full-blown roses
stained and lost through age.
He was speckled with barnacles,
fine rosettes of lime,
with tiny white sea-lice,
and underneath two or three
rags of green weed hung down.
While his gills were breathing in
the terrible oxygen
— the frightening gills,
fresh and crisp with blood,
that can cut so badly —
I thought of the coarse white flesh
packed in like feathers,
the big bones and the little bones,
the dramatic reds and blacks
of his shiny entrails,
and the pink swim-bladder
like a big peony.
I looked into his eyes
which were far larger than mine
but shallower, and yellowed,
the irises backed and packed
with tarnished tinfoil
seen through the lenses
of old scratched isinglass.
They shifted a little, but not
to return my stare.
— It was more like the tipping
of an object toward the light.
I admired his sullen face,
the mechanism of his jaw,
and then I saw
that from his lower lip
— if you could call it a lip —
grim, wet, and weaponlike,
hung five old pieces of fish-line,
or four and a wire leader
with the swivel still attached,
with all their five big hooks
grown firmly in his mouth.
A green line, frayed at the end
where he broke it, two heavier lines,
and a fine black thread
still crimped from the strain and snap
when it broke and he got away.
Like medals with their ribbons
frayed and wavering,
a five-haired beard of wisdom
trailing from his aching jaw.
I stared and stared
and victory filled up
the little rented boat,
from the pool of bilge
where oil had spread a rainbow
around the rusted engine
to the bailer rusted orange,
the sun-cracked thwarts,
the oarlocks on their strings,
the gunnels — until everything
was rainbow, rainbow, rainbow!
And I let the fish go.
I was going to write some more about Anne Sexton and include some Hispanic historical laments, but this post has gone on long enough now. We can only take so much before we turn to our Britney Spears news of the day. I got no permissions, and I mean absolutely none, to print any of this and for this, I apologize. Please don’t sue me! Sorry the news has been so bad: war, homicidal mania, more war; let's read some poetry.