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For the last pairing of January men poems, I’m featuring poems so opposite in tone it’s giving me an idea for a buddy comedy.

 

First up is John Berryman’s “Dream Song 14.” “Dream Song 14” is one of 385 dream songs told through Berryman’s alter-ego character of Henry. Henry sometimes speaks in the first person (as in this poem) and sometimes is referred to in the third (see second stanza).

 

I left it nestled in a display of graveyard blankets. (I had never heard of such a morbid thing till I moved to Michigan. Wonder if other Midwest states market greenery in this way.)

 

Dream Song 14

by John Berryman

 

Life, friends, is boring. We must not say so.

After all, the sky flashes, the great sea yearns,

we ourselves flash and yearn,

and moreover my mother told me as a boy

(repeatingly) ‘Ever to confess you’re bored

means you have no

 

Inner Resources.’ I conclude now I have no

inner resources, because I am heavy bored.

Peoples bore me,

literature bores me, especially great literature,

Henry bores me, with his plights & gripes

as bad as achilles,

 

who loves people and valiant art, which bores me.

And the tranquil hills, & gin, look like a drag

and somehow a dog

has taken itself & its tail considerably away

into mountains or sea or sky, leaving

behind: me, wag.

 

 

Confession:  I don’t like this poem. Never have. Snark irritates me. I love the real, and snark is its opposite; or more precisely, snark hides the real and must be wiped off like clown make-up to see the truer facial expression.

 

At the risk of sounding like the awkward girl whispering what she doesn’t like about the popular girl (not denying I have been in this position before), let me run down a list of what bothers me about this famous poem, beginning with that killer first line:

  • Life, friends, is boring. We must not say so.

This strikes me as dishonest. An avoidance of pain. Which may be the point. Boredom hides depression and despair.

  • Tranquil hills & gin

Sounds try-hard to my ears, but maybe when the poem was published in 1969, this juxtaposition had a fresher, more original sound.

  • Peoples bore me.

Peoples? I get that Berryman needs to differentiate groups of people, however you classify them—ethnicity, nationality, religion—from love of people (in the third stanza, referring to Henry’s more open-hearted nature), but peoples will never not make my skin crawl.

 

So I ask you:  is this heavily-anthologized poem over-rated? Or is my reaction just a matter of personal taste?

 

Berryman’s biography is exhausting. Suffice it to say he was born in 1914, had a complicated childhood (suicide of his father), extra-marital affairs, three marriages, a late-life religious conversion, a history of alcohol abuse and depression. He jumped off a bridge in Minnesota in 1972.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Now let us move on to a more emotive man, at least on the page. The speaker in Edward Field’s “A Journey” is feeling all the feels on his train ride. I taped the poem to a pole at an Amtrak station.

 

A Journey

by Edward Field

 

When he got up that morning everything was different:

He enjoyed the bright spring day

But he did not realize it exactly, he just enjoyed it.

 

And walking down the street to the railroad station

Past magnolia trees with dying flowers like old socks

It was a long time since he had breathed so simply.

 

Tears filled his eyes and it felt good

But he held them back

Because men didn’t walk around crying in that town.

 

Waiting on the platform at the station

The fear came over him of something terrible about to happen:

The train was late and he recited the alphabet to keep hold.

 

And in its time it came screeching in

And as it went on making its usual stops,

People coming and going, telephone poles passing,

 

He hid his head behind a newspaper

No longer able to hold back the sobs, and willed his eyes

To follow the rational weavings of the seat fabric.

 

He didn’t do anything violent as he had imagined.

He cried for a long time, but when he finally quieted down

A place in him that had been closed like a fist was open,

 

And at the end of the ride he stood up and got off that train:

And through the streets and in all the places he lived in later on

He walked, himself at last, a man among men,

With such radiance that everyone looked up and wondered.

 

 

“You just need a good cry,” I used to tell my kids, “then you’ll fell better.” Talk about a good cry—the poem’s speaker has a cry so good that

A place in him that had been closed like a fist was open

 

His transformation to a man among men is especially affecting because it was brought about by behavior not considered, even today, manly.

 

This is not a perfect poem. The claim that men didn’t walk around crying in that town seems a little silly (in what town do women walk around crying), but considering the rigid gender rules of the 50’s, the time in which the journey takes place (see link at end of post for more details), the phrase sets the context for the man’s newfound freedom.

 

Not perfect, but more importantly, real, and honest, and universal.

 

Since I’ve given short-shrift to Berryman’s biography, in fairness I can’t give too much space to Field.

Born 1924, he played cello in the family trio with his sisters on the radio, served in the Air Force as a navigator in WWII, worked as an actor and a typist, had a short affair with poet Frank O’Hara, taught poetry and published fiction with his long-time partner Neil Derrick.

 

I assume he’s still alive and if so he’s 94.

 

I love this anecdote he tells in an interview in Westbeth:

 

I gave a reading in Youngstown, Ohio—I guess at Youngstown State—and after I read, a woman who was a psychology teacher jumped up on the stage and said, “Yes, we must be free!” And then they carted her off. I guess I was a little too far out for Youngstown.

To learn more about the occasion for “A Journey” from the poet himself, link here.

 

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I’m trying to get my old men/sad men poems posted before the end of January—I got waylaid by a broken laptop and a too-long repair job (truly the techno-dog ate my homework)—so to keep things moving along I’ll post two short poems today and the longer ones by Friday. Then I can say fare-thee-well to the old and move on into February, which is, I know, not the obvious month for a fresh start, but for us procrastinators, a veritable mulligan for new year’s resolutions.

 

(Is there anyone who doesn’t want this January to be over?)

 

 

A strange old man

Stops me

Looking out of my deep mirror.

            —Hitomaro

 

 

I left (er uh, last December) a short poem by the seventh-century Japanese poet Hitomaro in a mirror in the men’s section of Nordstroms Rack. I had to slip it into a Michael Kors tie because I didn’t have tape. Notice how creased this poem is. It was one of the first poems I collected when I started Poem Elf nearly ten years ago. My plan was to have one of the men in my life leave it in a public restroom but I never found a volunteer.

 

Maybe I’ve kept it so long because I feel tender towards it. And respectful, the way one would feel about a pocket watch handed down from a great-grandfather long dead. The poem is a deep mirror itself and one I’ve never tired of looking at.

 

Little is known about Hitomaro’s life. He wrote for emperors and died around age fifty. So let’s assume he was in his forties when he wrote about the strange old man in the mirror. You’re still so young! I want to tell him, but I suppose the forties are the decade when bodily decline first surprises and shocks.

 

I’m pairing Hitomaro’s tanka with an excerpt from Yeats’ “Sailing to Byzantium.”

poem is on light post

 

An aged man is but a paltry thing

A tattered coat upon a stick, unless

Soul clap its hands and sing

            —W.B. Yeats

 

Excerpts are unfair to poems—it’s like showing a single buttock from a Rodin sculpture and saying, Look at this man think! But here it is, another piece of paper I’ve been carrying around for years and want to discharge.

 

Take a minute to read the whole poem, a rumination on aging and a celebration of creativity as an antidote. That’s how I read it anyway. Here’s what Yeats wrote about it (courtesy of Wikipedia):

I am trying to write about the state of my soul, for it is right for an old man to make his soul, and some of my thoughts about that subject I have put into a poem called ‘Sailing to Byzantium’. When Irishmen were illuminating the Book of Kells, and making the jeweled croziers in the National Museum, Byzantium was the centre of European civilization and the source of its spiritual philosophy, so I symbolize the search for the spiritual life by a journey to that city.[1]

 

I left the excerpt in a parking lot at dusk in early December. I’m enjoying how the light and the poem transform a prosaic suburban strip mall into a jeweled and transcendent space.

 

Yeats is ever my favorite. Link here to an earlier post with his biography.

 

 

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Here at the beginning of the 20thyear of the 21stcentury; in the spirit of “out with the old, in with the new”; bearing in mind the cartoon personification of the passing year as a weary white-haired fellow; in special consideration of those readers of age to shudder at Father Time; with a sympathetic nod to the male of the species who may in the present age feel unmoored and undervalued; in regards to certain 2019 Poem Elf pictures never posted; and finally, in celebration of using a year’s allotment of semi-colons in a single sentence—I offer you a few poems on men and aging.

 

(It’s true, I’m not the most desirable guest at a New Year’s Eve party.)

 

Anyway . . . as anyone who’s ever had to take keys away from an elderly male driver will tell you, this men and aging thing is fraught with loss. Loss of masculinity, status and potency. It ain’t pretty.

 

Full-steam ahead then.

 

I have six poems total and I’ll feature two paired poems per post. Today we have Thomas Lynch’s “How to Stay Alive” and Rick Cannon’s “Point of Arrival.”  Lynch is a mortician and writer here in southeast Michigan. The Undertaking, his 2009 collection of essays, is one of my favorites, and he has a new one out this year, The Depositions. Rick Cannon is a poet and teacher at Gonzaga High School in Washington, D.C. (featured in an early Poem Elf post, link here) and not coincidentally my nephew’s favorite teacher.

 

I left Lynch’s poem on a bench in the New York City subway.

 

How to Stay Alive

by Thomas Lynch

 

He found he had nothing of consequence

to say about the weather so he went

noiselessly about his sorry business—

a version of himself in which he kept

pace with his neighbors but at arm’s length

because his arms were too short and he ached

in ways he thought they’d hardly understand.

So he kept his distance, and assumed the stance

of someone he’d seen one time in a movie.

The sad sack in the poem is familiar as Prufrock and Walter Mitty, those characters who ache for emotional richness and settle for nothing of value. Lynch’s version—keeping pace with his neighbors but at a distance— seems to be in a race that he doesn’t want to win. It’s enough to be in the pack, to exist, to survive. He mistakenly believes—how many of us do too?— that in order to stay alive his true self has to die.

 

Cannon’s “Point of Arrival” is marginally less bleak. I stuck it on a twig by a random mailbox. Apologies to the owner if he took it personally.

 

POINT OF ARRIVAL

by Rick Cannon

He stands barefoot on the gray concrete,
the iron season cooling the blood
dull red through his flat slow soles.
He’s forgotten why he came to the garage
and stands in his shaggy robe before hammer,
awl and ratchet, dumb, blank,
as if stunned by a piece of news.

Out the window he sees the tight copse,
stripped spar and mast shrouded in pale
yards of light.

Still he stands, lost,
but beginning perhaps to sense, as dawn
will seep beneath a blind, that from far away
and through much trial he’s come
exactly here. And as he stands issuing

breath, that slow rhythm leaf by leaf,
he feels the earth shift slightly
under tonnage of wind
toward white winter.

For several minutes he stays his feet flat
on the stinging stone, a robed man
in a cold garage accepting his extremity,
seeing it had always been so:
even from the beginning he’d been,
by far, out too far to survive
more than just this little while.

 

A man in his bathrobe standing stock-still in his garage in the early morning is always going to worry me. Something is dying here, and it’s not just the late-autumn leaves. Will it end in suicide? Are we looking at the onset of dementia? The tools of the man’s former industriousness, the hammer, awl and ratchet, sit before him like a language he doesn’t understand anymore. He’s come smack up against his mortality. Perhaps his failures too.

 

I say Cannon’s poem is marginally less bleak than Lynch’s because at least this man feels connected to the beauty of nature. And he seems to be a work in progress. His acceptance of his loss, whatever it may be, happens as we watch, whereas Lynch’s man is stagnant from the moment we meet him.

 

Gee, welcome to Debbie Downer’s New Year’s celebration. More to come.

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poem is in the window, to the right of the striped pole

 

I won’t attempt to transcribe this shape poem.  WordPress would make a mess of the spacing, and instead of beards, the poem would look like a string of pennant flags.

 

 

Beards have been in the news lately, and not just in “News of the Weird” columns where beard stories presumably land—these beard tales are front page.  Major Nidal Hassan, on trial for killing 13 servicemen at Fort Hood, has been ordered to shave his beard.  The defendant had petitioned to keep his beard for religious reasons, but prosecutors argued that the beard growth is an attempt to confuse eyewitnesses.  Other beards were sheared in the trial of a breakaway Amish sect in Ohio charged with a hate crime.  It seems they clipped the long beards of rival Amish men to shame them.  They held down their victims and brandished shears used to cut horses’ manes.  The breakaway sect disapproved of the religious practices of the now short-bearded men.  I’d say that’s a big pile of facial fungus, considering that the group’s leader, the inaccurately named Samuel Mullet, offers members sexual “counseling” and punishes the sinful with long confinements in chicken coop cages.

 

It’s a shame Monty Python isn’t around anymore.

 

So now for something completely different:

 

The meaning of beards in Maxine Kumin’s poem, “The Victorian Obsession with the Preservation of Hair,” has nothing to do with religion.  The poem begins with a literary pogonology (a word new to me, meaning “the study of beards”), evaluating writers by the size and shape of their beards.  (I found a book online, Poets Ranked by Beard Weight, which does the same.  This tongue-in-cheek compendium of beard lore plays on the idea that we ascribe deep thoughts to those with large beards.  It also has a section on beard flirtation and beard dangers.  Link here for excerpts.  For those like me getting distracted by the very strangeness of beards, link here for beard charts and enjoy the wit of beard nomenclature.)

The poem’s title and the activity that led to Mrs. Longfellow’s death refer to a handicraft popular in Victorian times.  Women threaded needles with human hair to fashion pictures, rings and bracelets.  Hair crafts were used to mourn dead relatives.  Such preservation of what was once living, Kumin says, is a memento mori, a reminder of death.  (Once at a museum I saw a Victorian wreath woven from human hair.  I found it frightening and also disgusting which is mildly hypocritical, since I long ago gave a boyfriend my extracted tooth, wrapped up in a ring box.)

 

Kumin’s neat and self-referential structure of stanzas shaped like beards mirrors the neat if gruesome series of events in the Longfellow home.  In preserving the hair of a daughter she lost, Mrs. Longfellow lost her own life.  In trying to preserve the life of his wife, Longfellow nearly lost his own. His subsequent hair growth (necessitated by too-painful shaving) preserved the memory of his beloved wife.  His beard became his own Victorian hair craft.  It’s a Chinese box of a story and Kumin tells it straightforward, without flourish: the details of the story and the meaning she pulls out of it are embellishment enough.Henry Wadsworth Longfellow by The British Monarchy

 

Poems of course are less flammable forms of preservation.  Longfellow wrote a lovely poem to his dead wife (“The Cross of Snow”) which ends with another metaphor for preservation of the dead:

 

There is a mountain in the distant West

That, sun-defying, in its deep ravines

Displays a cross of snow upon its side.

Such is the cross I wear upon my breast

These eighteen years, through all the changing scenes

And seasons, changeless since the day she died.

 

Kumin preserves Longfellow’s devotion in a beard of her own creation. It almost makes me dizzy to think of the interplay of form and words and events, all together so clever and moving.

 

I left this poem outside a barbershop and congratulated myself for an impish placement.  But now that I think about it, the poem might have been better placed elsewhere.  Few men wear beards anymore, and if they do, the rest of their hair is usually gathered in an un-barbered ponytail.  Not counting men with a tentative commitment to facial hair—men on vacation and men with little goatees—the last man with a beard I knew was my college philosophy professor.  Back then beards and a corduroy blazer with elbow patches were practically a uniform in the philosophy department.  Dr. Stapleton wore it well and I loved going to his 8:00 a.m. class.

 

Maxine Kumin by joanmazzaPoet Maxine Kumin was born in Philadelphia in 1925.  She went to Radcliffe, now part of Harvard, and swam competitively there.  She took a seminar with novelist Wallace Stegner, and his criticism of her work discouraged her from writing poetry.  For a long time she wrote poems privately.

 

As a mother of young children, Kumin took a poetry class at an adult education center.  There she met poet Anne Sexton.  The two mothers, both at home, became close friends and stayed close up until the day of Sexton’s suicide.  Together they wrote four children’s books.  (The books were illustrated by Evaline Ness, wife of FBI agent Eliot Ness, the inspiration for the “Untouchables” television show.)  Kumin was first published at age 36, and subsequently won the Pulitzer Prize, the Ruth Lilly prize, and most of the big honorifics a poet can receive.

 

She and her husband Victor, a chemical engineer who worked with Oppeheimer on the atomic bomb*, had three children and now live on a farm in New Hampshire where they raise organic vegetables and breed horses.  At age 74 Kumin almost died in a horse driving accident. She broke her neck, ribs, and punctured a lung but recovered and is still writing poetry in her eighties.

 

She’s often compared to another northeastern pastoral poet—she’s been called the feminist Robert Frost.  But after reading some of her poems and marveling at her non-writing daring-do, I’m starting to think of her as a feminist Ernest Hemingway:  physical, fearless, unembellished.  Sans the beard of course.

 

 

*Victor Kumin refused to continue work on the atomic bomb after Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  He was threatened with court martial but in the end was honorably discharged.  For a full account of his fascinating story, link here.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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WATER AND FIRE

by Rick Cannon

For a long time

with the heavy, dreamy struggle upward,

the natural cupping of the hands,

the lengthy earning of a stroke,

a man does not know fire.

It’s not until he sees how easily things melt

and slide away,

how his father went,

his mother fails,

the skin over his wife’s cheekbones

suddenly softens, is looser,

not until then does he walk on flaming grass

into the furnace of the trees

and wonder that he’s not consumed.

Finding a suitable location for this poem stumped me for a while.  If the poem were written for women, I’d have a much easier time of it.  There are, after all, many more public spaces devoted to women than to men—more clothing stores, more facilities devoted to our personal upkeep, more aisle space for our drugstore needs.  How to reach the male audience for whom “Water and Fire” is intended?  In the men’s department, a sports bar, a stack of Esquire magazines at the bookstore?  Most of those places draw young men, and most young men wouldn’t think this poem could ever apply to them.  To borrow the metaphors of the poem, young men are too busy swimming along in their dreamy waterworld to imagine the trial by fire ahead.

So my question was, where do men of late-middle age go when they’re not at work?  Or when they’re not at home, collapsing on couches and muting sorrow with a click of the remote?  A few appropriate spots came to mind: a  urologist’s office, a golf course, a barber shop or, if I had an accomplice, the men’s bathroom.

But in the end, I decided to leave this beautiful poem in a beautiful location, on a Tidal Basin cherry tree.  Conveniently this was also a good way to celebrate my first year of blogging.  One of my first posts last year was on these same cherry blossoms, just after they had bloomed.  (This year the trees were only a smidge past peak, still faintly pink, which I took as an auspicious sign for my second year of blogging.)

If I needed a third reason to tape a poem to a cherry tree (and the more reasons I can accumulate, the more taping poems to trees seems like a reasonable project), Rick Cannon is from Washington, D.C., and teaches at Gonzaga High School just a few miles from where I left his poem.

Onto the poem itself.  The Everyman of “Water and Fire” moves through the two titular environments.  In water he’s protected from fire and doesn’t even know fire exists.  All his energy is focused on moving forward.  And then Everyman’s perspective shifts.  Whatever his efforts have earned him counts for nothing once life starts taking away what could never be earned in the first place:  his parents, his wife’s beauty and all those things unmentioned but somehow present in the poem—health, carefree children, marital harmony, bodies and homes untouched by bad accidents.  Life will be grueling at some point, there’s no escaping it.  But to walk through fire and not be burned to ash is to be triumphant and sorrowful both at once.

I’m reminded of the brutal coming-of-age rituals I read about in Miss Parr’s Social Studies class, rituals in which boys become men by leaping from great heights with vines tied to their ankles.  But in this poem, it is the older man who must endure trials.  And what does he become?  A man burned and scarred but stronger than the young fellow in the water.

I’m fascinated by glimpses like this of the male experience—and I must admit men are stranger to me sometimes than birds and not at all as simple as my husband claims them to be.  But it’s as a woman that I was initially drawn to this poem.  Specifically, the lines

the skin over his wife’s cheekbones

suddenly softens, is looser.

Ouch.  Thank goodness Cannon doesn’t mention vaginal atrophy, graying pubic hair, thinning eyebrows, the occasional whisker and other disheartening signs of physical decline in the female body.

(Which reminds me of a line from Woody Allen’s Don’t Drink the Water, a play set in the U.S. Embassy in the Soviet Union.  Suspected of espionage, the bumbling Walter Hollander responds to his wife’s bragging about being the former Miss Wisconsin of 1938 with this lovely zinger about her legs:  “One look at those varicose veins and they’ll think I’m smuggling road maps.”)

Interesting that the man in the poem doesn’t notice his own decay, only that of the people around him.  God love all these men who can look in the mirror with such blindness and bliss!  Most women I know (including myself) obsess over aging faces.  We cling to what’s left of our beauty like lovers at a train station.  But not most men.  Either they’ve bought into the idea that they get better looking with age, or seconds after noticing their paunch, they pat it and put it out of their minds.

Of course the arc of life described in the poem is universal, and just as easily applied to women; and there’s no reason, I can hear my husband say, to fashion the poem into a dart to throw at men.  But it’s my blog and what’s done is done.

Rick Cannon graduated from Georgetown University and Iowa Writers Workshop.  In addition to teaching at Gonzaga for over 30 years, he’s an adjunct professor at Trinity University and has published three chapbooks.  He and his wife, poet Lori Shpunt, have five children.  You can read more of his wonderful poems here.

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