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I was never comfortable with the expression “passed away” to mean that someone had died.

I know that many people consider “passed away” as gentler and less cold than “died.” It feels too politically correct, and more of the general problem many people have with facing up to hard facts and difficult situations and delaying as long as possible.

This was a week of upheaval in the United States with the Presidential election finally occurring and the selection of Donald Trump.

And Leonard Cohen died.

leonard_cohen_2103

I was reading articles about him last night and it most said he passed away quietly at home. He was 82 and had suffered from cancer and knew he was close to death. His son said that he was writing until the end.

I knew Leonard Cohen first as a poet back in the late 1960s. I have a very strong memory of him coming up in a discussion in a English class at Rutgers College. One of my fellow English majors in an honors literature class said that Cohen was his favorite poet. The professor said that Cohen was a songwriter, not a poet. Most of the class did not agree with the professor.

That kind of divide came up recently again when Bob Dylan was given the Nobel Prize in Literature. Is he a poet, or a songwriter? Can you be both? Does it matter?

Leonard Cohen was a poet, a songwriter, a performer and a novelist. At the time of his death,he was certainly best known for his music.  Whether it was his “Hallelujah,” ”Suzanne” or “Bird on a Wire,” his songs really have attached themselves to people.

Like a bird on a wire,
like a drunk in a midnight choir,
I have tried in my way to be free.

I discovered that he was an aspiring Zen monk, though he downplayed his own success on that path.

He was painfully shy and did not like being on stage. I read that he quit halfway through his first public performance, and that fear continued until the end. He self-medicated with drugs and alcohol unsuccessfully. Perhaps, Zen was an alternative.

Listening to a special edition of The New Yorker Radio podcast that is the last interview with him, they speak of him as “a poet in the vein of Allen Ginsberg or Frank O’Hara,” especially before he released his first album in 1967. In this last gentle interview with David Remnick from this past summer at his home in Los Angeles, Cohen said “I’m ready to die.”

It connected with me that Cohen said “I like to tie up the strings. It’s a cliché, but it’s underestimated as an analgesic on all levels. Putting your house in order is, if you can do it, is one of the most comforting activities and the benefits of it are incalculable.”

If you read some of Stranger Music, his selected poems and songs, I would be curious to know if you saw a real difference between the poems and the songs there.

I liked his earliest songs best. They are mostly sad, simple, acoustic songs. I confess that in college I listened to that first album as both a way to deal with depression and as a way to go deeper into depression. Like drinking booze, it didn’t help with depression and, in some way that I still don’t understand, I sometimes wanted to go deeper. Maybe as an English major who wanted to be a writer, I saw depression, booze and drugs as some kind of Romantic, artistic path. It was part of the biographies of many of my favorite writers and artists. In Cohen’s words, “You want to go darker.”

Listening to that podcast, I’m still not sure that Cohen would tell me that attitude was right or wrong.

His words about setting your house in order and being ready to die make me think that in his case he did pass away. Perhaps that is the correct usage of that phrase. When someone dies a violent death, no one says that she “passed away.” I suppose that some people are “deceased,” “expired,” “have departed this life,” or just plain dead. I hope that you and I have the chance to put our house in order before we pass away.

One of the “haiku” from his old poetry collection The Spice-Box of Earth is:

Silence
and a deeper silence
when the crickets
hesitate

Leonard Cohen has passed away.

 

rainy

The Chipmunk

Stock-still I stand,
And him I see
Prying, peeping
From Beech-tree;
Crickling, crackling
Gleefully!

I don’t think most people would associate this short, light poem with the novelist Herman Melville, its author. I like Melville’s writing. A lot of people don’t. Generally, he is not an easy read. He gets praise for Moby Dick, but even that novel was a commercial failure in his time.

He had some early success with his tales of sailing and exotic natives on distant islands. But every succeeding book seemed to sell less and finally with the publication of the satiric Pierre in 1852, it must have seemed like the end for him. The fame would come after his death.

melville-stampHe never stopped writing. He still got published – a Revolutionary War novel, Israel Potter,  a few years later and stories in magazines. Some of those late stories are still read today (“Bartleby, the Scrivener,” “The Encantadas,” and “Benito Cereno.” These and three other stories were collected in 1856 as The Piazza Tales. sales were poor.

He had been friends with fellow author Nathaniel Hawthorne when moved his family to Arrowhead, a farm near Pittsfield, Massachusetts, in the summer of 1850. My reading of that relationship is that Melville considered Hawthorne a close friend, but Hawthorne didn’t see it as being very close. He dedicated Moby-Dick to Hawthorne They met up again in 1857 when he was in England.

Melville made a tour of the Near East. He had The Confidence-Man, a novel I like, published in 1857, and that was the last prose work he published during his lifetime.

He moved to New York. He took a regular job as a Customs Inspector. He wrote poetry. A few books of it were published. Battle-Pieces and Aspects of the War was about the morality of war, particularly the Civil War, and his trip to the Holy Land inspired the poems in Clarel. The latter was a metaphysical epic. I find most of the poetry impenetrable and not enjoyable – and I am not the average reader because I actually read books of poetry.

“To produce a mighty book, you must choose a mighty theme,” Melville, Moby-Dick

When Herman Melville died, on September 28th, 1891, he was working on that small chipmunk poem above. He had spent the last 25 years being a private citizen. And he wrote poems. But he was a commercial failure as a poet.

As he got older, he went from mighty themes and grand language to simplicity.

Through an orchard I follow
Two children in glee.
From an apple-tree’s hollow
They startle the bee.

Melville was 72 and pretty much anonymous when he died in Manhattan. But I would like to believe that in his simple poems in the last years, he found some peace. No need to publish. No big themes.

Six days a week, he walked west across lower Manhattan to his job along the Hudson River (then known as the North River) to earn a fixed salary of four dollars a day. He walked home in the evening, and after dinner, wrote poems.

Soft as the morning
When South winds blow,
Sweet as peach-orchards
When blossoms are seen,
Pure as a fresco
Of roses and snow,
Or an opal serene.

On a chilly, rainy, autumn day like today in 2001, I tried walking Melville’s New York City.  I was going through a pretty bad depression. Unfortunately, in that state of mind, people often drag themselves deeper. I don’t know why I thought that walking by the bay at the Battery I might commune with the spirits of Melville or Walt Whitman and that would somehow make things better.

I stopped at Trinity Church in the neighborhood of Bartleby’s Wall Street. It was empty and cold.

I walked past 97 Nassau Street where Melville had frequented Gowan’s Antiquarian Bookstore. It is supposed that he “probably exchanged pleasantries with Edgar Allan Poe, whom he had met through their mutual editor. On one visit, Melville bought an edition of Robert Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy which, he discovered at a later time, had once belonged to his father’s library.”

Melancholy – that feeling of pensive sadness, with no obvious cause.  Melville knew it too. He may have written through it sometimes.

Ah, Love, when life closes,
Dying the death of the just,
May we vie with Hearth-Roses,
Smelling sweet in our dust.

When he died, there were several dozen unpublished poems on his desk. They are about roses and irises, bluebirds and chipmunks, the Berkshires and dreams.They have been published as Weeds and Wildings, with a Rose or Two.

I suspect critics would not think much of these last poems. I suspect that Melville didn’t care.

dead-rose

relativity100

The general theory of relativity conceives of gravity as a result of curved space-time. (Public domain image by NASA.)

If non-science people have heard of one modern theory of physics, it is likely to be that of relativity. In 1905, Albert Einstein determined that the laws of physics are the same for all non-accelerating observers, and that the speed of light in a vacuum was independent of the motion of all observers. This was the theory of special relativity. Einstein then spent ten years trying to include acceleration in the theory and published his theory of general relativity in 1915. In it, he determined that massive objects cause a distortion in space-time, which is felt as gravity.

One hundred years later, Sarah Howe wrote a sonnet titled “Relativity” for a commission by Britain’s National Poetry Day. It was to be a poem on light. She wrote, paradoxically, about its absence. The poem is about black holes and is dedicated to Stephen Hawking. It begins:

When we wake up brushed by panic in the dark
our pupils grope for the shape of things we know.

That is the light we know in our world of gravity. She is also writing about light at the level of quantum physics where photons behave like particles and also as waves in a mysterious duality. Howe has said of the poem that she was also thinking about how scientist Galileo and poet Milton in their blindness “came to rely on other sorts of eyes.”

Last November was the 100th anniversary of Albert Einstein unveiling the key equations of general relativity, which he did in four lectures at the Prussian Academy of Sciences, and by the end of the month, he had arrived at the ten equations that physicists still use today.

One of his theories was of “spacetime.” Einstein’s theory viewed space and time not as two separate elements, but interwoven. A change in one produces an effect on the other. (His former professor, Hermann Minkowski actually came up with the space-time continuum  but Einstein elaborated on it.

One of the parts of this that you may have heard of is that as the rate of speed goes up, the rate of time must go down and vice versa. For an object moving slowly through space, time is passing quickly and for an object moving at a very high rate of speed, time actually slows down. It is not something that we can observe firsthand, and since we don’t get to travel at anything close to the speed of light, we don’t “go back in time.”

But the theory has been tested many times in experiments sending the most accurate atomic clocks for orbits in rockets, and when they return to Earth the clocks on the rockets are just slightly behind their earthly counterparts.

He also theorized that light curves because gravity pulls at the fabric of spacetime. Einstein thought that curve should be visible during an eclipse, and in 1919, photographs of a solar eclipse proved that the deflection of the sunlight matched Einstein’s prediction.

Isaac Newton had said that gravity was a universal force always pulling on one body on another. We learned that in school and plenty of people know only that about gravity. Einstein argued that there was no “force” of gravity at all.

His concept of space and time is often compared to a stretched fabric or trampoline that can warp and bend because of the presence of massive objects, like our sun. Objects like Earth or us on it move as straight as they can, flowing through curved space-time.


If you are curious about how politics also shaped Einstein’s theory of general relativity, check out this article from nytimes.com

Synchronicity – that concept that was first explained by psychiatrist Carl Jung – visited me recently. I keep a small notebook of ideas for poems. Some entries are just titles.  Last week, I was paging through them and came across “The Museum of Broken Relationships” which I scribbled on a page back in 2014. Good title, I thought.

I went to my online collection of ronka poems that I keep adding to, and wrote a poem to that title:

The suggested donation to enter is expensive.

Each of us has our own gallery.

Mine is dark. Poorly lit. That’s intentional.

Letters, drawings, paintings, postcards, photographs – many poems.

It’s okay to touch. No one cares.

I always add an image to the poems and did a search on that title and was surprised to find that such a museum opened this month in Los Angeles.

Carl Jung defined synchronicity as the idea that holds that events are “meaningful coincidences” if they occur with no causal relationship, yet seem to be meaningfully related.  I’m not sure of the meaning here, but it does seem meaningful. Like interpreting a dream, I started considering possibilities. I was recently sifting through a box of old letter and emails I had saved. Some could be considered “love letters.” As someone married for three decades, I wondered to myself the wisdom or lack thereof in keeping these combustible pieces of paper.

Maybe I can donate them.

The actual Museum of Broken Relationships grew from a traveling exhibition revolving around the concept of failed relationships and their remaining ruins.

It started in Croatia in 2006 with an artist ex-couple and became a permanent museum in Zagreb in 2010. This new Los Angeles location opened this month.

You can donate an exhibit along with a title, the duration/dates of the relationship, city/country of origin and an accompanying story. Your personal information remains with the staff, so your exhibit is anonymous. (they do need your full name and a signature to show that you give consent to unlimited display and potential reproduction and publication of your donation on all museum material.)

Our collection has no restrictions. It might be a single object – a letter, a photograph – or several items, or a video or audio. I’ve got a mix tape somewhere that chronicles one relationship’s end with songs and narration.  It might be therapeutic to write the stories of failed relationships.

Chances are the museum will accept your donation as part of their, but whether it ends up in an exhibit, traveling displays, catalogues or other museum publications is not guaranteed.

We all have small museums, virtual and actual, of broken relationships. Sometimes we hang on to the exhibits even though seeing them is unpleasant. Reminders are important. Lessons learned. Roads taken.


Don’t want to donate to the actual museum? Consider leaving an exhibit as a comment here. Tell us the object(s) and give us the story.

Starting in the late sixties and early seventies, American poet James Merrill became interested in the occult and began using a Ouija board regularly to communicate with spirits. He began to use those conversations for his poems.

The Ouija board was originally known as a spirit board or talking board.  “Ouija” is a trademark of Hasbro, Inc. who bought the rights and produced it as a game board using the French oui and German ja to make the foreign-sounding yes+yes board name. How about a $260 glow-in-the dark version?

This flat board is marked with the letters of the alphabet, the numbers 0–9, the words “yes”, “no”, “goodbye” and sometimes includes  “hello” and other symbols and graphics. The user places their fingers lightly on a heart-shaped piece of wood or plastic called a planchette. The movement of the planchette supposedly spells out words and the occult idea is that the movement is controlled by a spirit you have contacted.

The original talking board of 1894

The original talking board of 1894

Most people treat the Ouija as a party game. It was big with teenage girls in my youth as a way to find out about boyfriends and future events. Once upon a long time ago, I spent some serious hours using it with a girlfriend who was into all things strange. She read the books and had rules we followed. For example, never ask a question that you already know the answer to. We received some “messages” that were difficult to pass off as coincidences or as things we had deliberately pointed the planchette to spell out. There were things that we were later able to confirm as accurate. There was also a lot of gibberish.

American Spiritualist Pearl Curran popularized its use as a divining tool during World War I. He believed that the dead were able to contact the living and he used a talking board to enable faster communication with spirits.

When I taught middle school, the Ouija board always seemed to come up somehow in some a class discussion. I would tell students that some religions, like Christians, think that its use can lead to demonic possession. That warning probably just made it seem more appealing to my students, as did reading about it in Stephen King’s The Stand or watching The Exorcist.

Paranormal and supernatural beliefs like the Ouija are generally considered pseudoscience. The planchette moves because of unconscious (or quite conscious) movements by the users. I’m sure Merrill wasn’t interested, but if you want some science, look into the psychophysiological explanation under ideomotor effect.

With his partner David Jackson, Merrill spent more than 20 years transcribing supernatural communications during séances using a Ouija board. He published his first Ouija board narrative in a poem for each of the letters A through Z, calling it “The Book of Ephraim.”  It appeared in the collection Divine Comedies, which won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1977.

“The Book of Ephraim,” a 90-page narrative poem in that volume. It comes from those 20+ years using the Ouija board and revelations spelled out by Ephraim. That spirit was a Greek Jew once in the court of Tiberius. Merrill mixed his own personal memories with Ephraim’s messages. In Mirabell: Books of Number, a sequel to “The Book of Ephraim” he continued that path at even greater length.

Is it great poetry? Not for me. I prefer other work by Merrill, but with a Pulitzer and with Mirabell getting the National Book Award for Poetry, don’t rely on my critical opinions.

Merrill is an interesting poet story.  He had a pretty sweet early life as the son of a founding partner of the Merrill Lynch investment firm. He had a governess that taught him French and German. They lived on a 30-acre estate in Southampton. Yes, James rejected much of that and lived a fairly simple life.

When Merrill thought he had exhausted the Ouija inspiration, the  “spirits” “ordered” (his word) him to write and publish more. That’s spooky. This led to further installments and finally a complete three-volume book titled The Changing Light at Sandover in 1982. It is a 560-page apocalyptic epic poem.

I like the poetry of William Carlos Williams. He is a Jersey boy like myself, born in 1883 in Rutherford. He went off to medical school at the University of Pennsylvania, but returned home and had a solid medical practice throughout his life. Simultaneously, he was publishing poems, novels, essays, and plays.

His poem “Spring and All,” begins:

By the road to the contagious hospital
under the surge of the blue
mottled clouds driven from the
northeast—a cold wind.

It was written just a short time after the publication of T. S. Eliot‘s “The Waste Land.” Both poems open with a rather unpleasant spring season. Eliot wrote that:

April is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.

mt.chocorua from a distance – watercolor by e.e. cummings via eecummingsart.com

 

I am feeling more optimistic about the new season, so I am more in a mood for an E.E. Cummings kind of spring.

in Just-
spring          when the world is mud-
luscious the little

lame balloonman

whistles          far          and wee

and eddieandbill come
running from marbles and
piracies and it’s

spring

when the world is puddle-wonderful

read the full poem by E.E. Cummings

 

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