Dr. Williams, Jersey Poet

Williams in his 1921 passport photo

It’s the birthday of poet William Carlos Williams, born in Rutherford, New Jersey, on September 17, 1883. He the first of two sons of an English father and a Puerto Rican mother of French, Dutch, Spanish, and Jewish ancestry. Growing up in New Jersey, I was interested in Jersey poets when I was in high school and discovered Williams through a used copy of his Selected Poems that I found at a yard sale. Seeing that it was his birthday, I took that old paperback off my shelf and read some breath into his poems again.

When Williams was in high school he decided he wanted to be both a poet and a doctor and saw no clash between the two professions. He pursued both vocations with equal passion for the rest of his life. He wrote poems on the back of prescription slips, and he drew from the passions and pain of the patients he visited in the Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood of New York City and, later, in his practice in Rutherford.

In my high school days, I fell under the spell of his contemporaries Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot and poetry that “sounded like poetry” and that took some digging to understand. I found Williams’ poems oddly simple and almost “not poetry.”

Apparently, Williams admired those poets too but found them “too European.” But along with Pound and H.D., he is considered a leading poet of the Imagist movement. It became his aim to capture a uniquely American voice. He wanted to use the plain speech of the local people whose lives he became part of in his medical practice.

In the second half of my poetic life, I lost interest in the most “poetic” poets and found my reading and writing closer to Williams, though more narrative in form.

The sixteen-word unrhymed poem from 1923 below is among Williams’ most famous poems.

The Red Wheelbarrow

so much depends
upon

a red wheel
barrow

glazed with rain
water

beside the white
chickens

“The Red Wheelbarrow” should be called  ‘XXII’ since it’s the 22nd poem to appear in Williams’ 1923 collection Spring and All and that is how it was listed in that collection – but everyone refers to it as “The Red Wheelbarrow.” When I first became really interested in Williams, this poem intrigued me. It is so simple and yet its “meaning” is not so easy to explain.  That wheelbarrow is a metonym for something greater. The fact that it is “glazed” by rainwater is very much “Imagist.”

Williams’ poetic reputation was slow to form because it was a time Eliot’s “The Waste Land” was considered the pinnacle of English poetry. It was in the 1940s and beyond that Williams gained wider recognition, and his five-volume poem Paterson, (1946 – 1958) is considered his masterpiece.

It is a much more complex and difficult poem on first reading. (It is available online if you can read text on a screen – I can’t, so I prefer to read it on the paper page.) Yes, in high school, I took a copy of it to read beside the Great Falls of Paterson, New Jersey feeling very much a poet myself. Corny Romanticism, I suppose, but I still visit those falls quite regularly, without his book but usually with my notebook and camera.

But another of his best-known poems is this very short one that reads like a note left for his wife.

This Is Just To Say

I have eaten
the plums
that were in
the icebox

and which
you were probably
saving
for breakfast

Forgive me
they were delicious
so sweet
and so cold

The poem is very much “modernist and imagist” and so we look at it as dealing with temptation, guilt, and life’s simple pleasures as he apologizes and yet doesn’t apologize.

This post is not to say that all of his poems are so simple on the surface or difficult to understand as poems.

Take this opening of his straight ahead and rather erotic poem “Arrival.”

And yet one arrives somehow,
finds himself loosening the hooks of
her dress
in a strange bedroom–
feels the autumn
dropping its silk and linen leaves
about her ankles…

And I do love the idea of and this line “Who shall say I am not the happy genius of my household?” from his poem “Danse Russe.”

He certainly was a prolific poet. His Collected Poems take two volumes.


This post originally appeared on my poetry blog
connected to the website for POETS ONLINE.

Shakespeares Sonnettes

This is the kind of “news” I will miss each day now that The Writer’s Almanac will be ending its run as a radio/podcast.

On this date in 1609 publisher Thomas Thorpe made an entry in the Stationer’s Register that said:
Entred for his copie under the handes of master Wilson and master Lownes Wardenes a booke called Shakespeares sonnettes

Soon after, Shakespeare’s sonnets were published. There were no copyright laws during Shakespeare’s time and these may have been published without Shakespeare’s consent. The manuscript is full of errors and appears to be incomplete, so some scholars think that it may be an early draft.

Thomas Thorpe himself had an unsavory reputation and was rumored to hang around scriveners—people who could read and write and hired out their services—looking for the opportunity to steal manuscripts. Regardless of how this edition came to print, we’re lucky that it did; had it not, it’s likely that only two of Shakespeare’s sonnets would survive today.

Sonnet #116
Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments. Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove.
O no, it is an ever-fixèd mark
That looks on tempests and is never shaken;
It is the star to every wand’ring bark,
Whose worth’s unknown, although his height be taken.
Love’s not time’s fool, though rosy lips and cheeks
Within his bending sickle’s compass come:
Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,
But bears it out even to the edge of doom.
If this be error and upon me proved,
I never writ, nor no man ever loved.

True love outlasts time and love conquers all. Oh, were it so!

Podcasting

podcast mic
I read that there are currently over two million podcasts and over 48 million podcast episodes out in the world. Those numbers are incredible on their own, but when you realize that just 4 years ago, there were “only” a little more than half a million podcasts, the growth is astonishing. Those numbers might make you think that the podcast market is saturated, but that doesn’t seem to be the case.

I started doing a podcast last year and added another little fish to that big podcast pond. It is a podcast of some of the small poems I post on another site, Writing the Day. I thought there might be some interest by those readers to hear me read the poems and talk sometimes about what inspired them.

Not only are the poems small, but so are the podcasts. Some are under a minute. A few are a few minutes in length when there is some explanation I want to include. You might think that short episodes would have some appeal in these busy time but I don’t think so. I would think the same about short stories, but novels (end especially long ones) are definitely more popular. All those multi-hour true crime podcasts seem to be at the top of lists.

I fell behind on the podcasting. I started with the newest poems but I plan this year to go back and record some of the older ones that continue to get readers. There are about 800 poems there so I’ve got more than enough content. If only I had more than enough time.

Currently, they are available on Spotify (which has been the most popular option), but you can also find them on Google PodcastsPocket Casts, and RadioPublic.

You can find the poems and the story of how that project got started at WRITING THE DAY. It would be great if you stopped by and read a few poems and really great if you went to one of those podcast places and gave a listen.

A Glimpse of Dawn

Dawn —
fish the cormorants haven’t caught
swimming in the shallows.
Translated by Robert Hass

Landscape with a Solitary Traveler
“Landscape with a Solitary Traveler” – Yosa Buson

I woke up at dawn today. That’s not uncommon for me, but I normally don’t get out of bed. Today I did and I went downstairs, made tea, and picked up a book of haiku and read some by Yosa Buson.

He was a Japanese poet and painter and, along with Matsuo Bashō and Kobayashi Issa, Buson is considered among the greatest poets of haiku.

He was born in the village of Kema in Settsu Province (now Kema-chō, Miyakojima Ward in Osaka city). He moved to Edo (now Tokyo) at age 20 and learned poetry under the tutelage of the haikai master Hayano Hajin. After Hajin died, Buson moved to Shimōsa Province (modern-day Ibaraki Prefecture) to follow in the path of Bashō.

Like Bashō, Buson traveled through the wilds of northern Honshū to see the land that inspired Bashō’s famous travel diary, Oku no Hosomichi (The Narrow Road to the Interior). He published his notes from the trip in 1744, marking the first time he published under the name Buson.

A sample poem of his:

隅々に残る寒さや梅の花
Sumizumi ni nokoru samusa ya ume no hana

In nooks and corners
Cold remains:
Flowers of the plum

At age 42, he settled in Kyoto and began to write under the name of Yosa, which he took from his mother’s birthplace. Buson married at age 45, had one daughter, and remained in Kyoto writing and teaching poetry.

keisei wa
nochi no yo kakete
hanami kana

Courtesans come out
to see the cherry blossoms
as though they were betting on their next life

(translated by W.S. Merwin)

Another name change occurred in 1770 when he assumed the haigō (haiku pen name) of Yahantei (Midnight Studio), which had been the pen name of his teacher Hajin, but his poems have been collected under the name Yosa Buson.

I like this poem of his that imagines nature as calligraphy.

Ichi gyô no kari ya hayama ni tsuki o in su

All in one line, the wild geese
and the moon in the foothills
for a seal

Buson died at the age of 68 and was buried at Konpuku-ji in Kyoto.

As with most of the great classical haiku poets, he wrote a final deathbed poem. Since it was recorded that he died in the night, before dawn, I view his poem as a hopeful vision of the next place in his journey.

Shira ume ni akuru yo bakari to nari ni keri

The night almost past,
through the white plum blossoms
a glimpse of dawn.



The Essential Haiku: Versions of Basho, Buson, & Issa

What I Am Listening To: Poetry

podcast iconIn this “What I Am Listening To,” I focus on poetry podcasts. I listen to all of these on the Stitcher app but I suspect that they are also available on other apps.

The Writer’s Almanac – I have been starting my day with The Writer’s Almanac daily podcast of poetry and historical interest pieces, usually of literary significance. Each day’s offering is five minutes long and contains “on this day in history” information as well as host Garrison Keillor reading an accessible poem. Disclaimer: Several of my poems have been featured on the show.

Poetry Unbound  – An immersive reading of a single poem, guided by Pádraig Ó Tuama. Unhurried, contemplative, and energizing. New episodes on Monday and Friday, about 15 minutes each. Anchor your life with poetry.

The New Yorker: Poetry – Readings and conversation with The New Yorker’s poetry editor, Kevin Young. Guest poets select a favorite poem from the magazine by another poet and one of their own.

Poetry Spoken Here – An almost weekly poetry podcast that features interviews with poets, reviews of poetry books, examinations of individual poems, and investigations of themes in poetry.

Poetry from Studio 47 – a weekly radio broadcast that airs on NPR affiliate, South Dakota Public Broadcasting. The show highlights poetry from the Midwest, the Great Plains, and beyond. Each episode is roughly five minutes long.

Bookworm – This is an intellectual, accessible, and provocative collection of literary conversations. The host, Michael Silverblatt, is superb. He’s the reader any author would love to have. The show mostly features novelists but the huge archive contains poets too.

The Slowdown – This podcast seems to have ended but the archive is full shows with poet Tracy K. Smith delivering a different way to see the world with a close, personal reading of a poem.

Writing the Day – Personal plug. I have been writing poems on my website Writing the Day since 2014. I started recently adding a podcast version of poems – my reading and sometimes some explication. These are short (under two minutes) episodes. Currently available online on Anchor and with or without an app on Spotify. and on Google PodcastsPocket Casts, and RadioPublic.

Simple Wisdom

On another blog of mine I had been posting a series of short pieces of simple wisdom. That blog began as “Evenings in Paradelle” and I intended it to be shorter weekday posts while this blog are the longer Weekends in Paradelle posts. That blog became One Page Schoolhouse and has occasional posts that I hope inform readers.

Some of those short posts included Zen koans, quotations, and aphorisms. (I don’t see quotes and aphorisms as the same thing.) Some of the posts were migrated to this blog.)

An aphorism (literally “distinction” or “definition”, from the Greek) is an original thought, spoken or written in a “laconic” and memorable form.

The Aphorisms of Hippocrates is one of the earliest collections which includes aphorisms like this one:

 “Life is short, art long, opportunity fleeting,
experience misleading, judgment difficult.”

There are aphoristic collections (AKA wisdom literature) such as the Sutra literature of India, the Biblical Ecclesiastes, and in the work of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Søren Kierkegaard, Friedrich Nietzsche, Franz Kafka, Robert A. Heinlein, Blaise Pascal, and Oscar Wilde. There are anthologies like the Oxford Book of Aphorisms.

There is even an anthology of Ifferisms – aphorisms that begin with the word “If.” Some samples:

“If the blind lead the blind, both shall fall into the ditch.”  
– The Bible (Matthew 15:14)

“If we have not peace within ourselves, it is vain to seek it from outward sources.” 
– François de la Rochefoucauld

“If we have our own why of life, we shall get along with almost any how.”  
–  Friedrich Nietzsche

“If wishes were horses, beggars would ride.”   
– Scottish Proverb

“If you want to lift yourself up, lift up someone else.”  
–  Booker T. Washington

Some examples, like those below gleaned from a Wikipedia entry, do seem indistinguishable from the kinds of quotes you find in quote books and on posters and bookmarks.

Good art seems ancient to its contemporaries, and modern to their descendants.
— Plutarch

Nothing great was ever achieved without enthusiasm.
— Ralph Waldo Emerson

That which does not destroy us makes us stronger.
— Friedrich Nietzsche

It is not uncommon to commiserate with a stranger’s misfortune, but it takes a really fine nature to appreciate a friend’s success.
— Oscar Wilde

No good deed goes unpunished.
— It said Clare Boothe Luce but I’m pretty sure it was Tacitus

It is better to be hated for what one is, than loved for what one is not.
— André Gide

I’m going to add my own spin on the definition of aphorism. When you pull a clever line out of essay, poem, novel or other work, that’s a quotation. When someone sits down and writes an original short, memorable line that makes sense when you read it but it makes even more sense when you read it again and think about it, that is an aphorism.

I am going to nominate here some aphorisms written by James Richardson. He is an acquaintance. (A quaint phrase for someone who you can’t call a friend because you don’t know them that well, but have met and know better than many of your Facebook and Twitter “friends.”)

I could add a list of them here, but they are not best consumed in handfuls. To me, the best of them are like Western koans.

If you view a kōan as an “unanswerable” question, then you may not even want to seek an answer – but people DO answer koans. Rather than see them as unanswerable or even meaningless, look for an answer. Don’t get hung up on the “correct” answer because that is a dead-end. Koans do have some traditional recorded answers” (kenjō), but don’t be fooled into believing that they are anything more than additional questions.

Richardson’s aphorisms are not usually questions, so they don’t have answers. They are quotable. They require additional thought and explication.

Here are four of Jim’s aphorisms. Consume slowly.

The road reaches every place, the shortcut only one.

Shadows are harshest when there is only one lamp.

Each lock makes two prisons.

All stones are broken stones.

You can find more of James Richardson’s aphorisms in:
Interglacial: New and Selected Poems & Aphorisms  
Vectors: Aphorisms & Ten-Second Essays  
Life as Viewed in a Mirror: a Bok of Poems and Aphorisms

Also worth a read is Jim’s By the Numbers which was a National Book Award Finalist.